Monday, 7 January 2013

Ginger Snaps: My Sister, My Other, A Force of Nature

©Lions Gate Films 2000

As part of my recent dissertation titled "The Babe in the Woods: Feminist Views on 21st Century Cinematic Retellings of Little Red Riding Hood", I analysed the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps (2000) (a line from which titles this blog). In this analysis I investigate Ginger Snap's use of the fairy tale of "Little Red Riding Hood", where period blood is a red cape, and where the wolf is a threat from within.
Ginger Snaps uses lycanthropy as an allegory for menstruation and sexual awakening and features two sisters, Ginger and Brigitte, who have not had their periods yet, even though they are both 15. Blood in general turns out to be of central importance in Ginger Snaps. The film opens with the sisters talking of their blood pledge to commit joint suicide at the age of 16: “Out on the scene and dead by 16, but together forever”. The sisters feel that growing up and thereby conforming is a fate worse than death. The site where Ginger simultaneously gets her period and is bitten by the wolf is relevant, as it takes place on a playground. Before the wolf attacks, a wind makes a little white pony ride-on bounce back and forth and creak. The image of the white horse is used here as a symbol of childhood innocence, and is contrasted and threatened by the darker forces of adulthood and the approaching wolf. Before the wolf attacks, we see Ginger’s period blood run down her thigh, and Brigitte screams during the attack that the wolf was attracted to its smell. This is a very brazen interpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood story which avoids all squeamishness on the subject, as it uses the symbolism of Charles Perrault’s tale completely literally. In Perrault’s tale the wolf is attracted to the young girl because of the red colour of her cape, or more accurately: because of what the colour signifies. In the case of Ginger, her sexual maturity is in evidence through the fact that she is having her period, and the wolf, both perceived literally as a bloodthirsty animal and symbolically as a predatory man, is attracted to the blood and to what the blood signifies, respectively. Contrary to what the girls believe, the onset of Ginger’s womanhood turns out to be the opposite of conforming and being ‘normal’. In fact, Brigitte is the one who increasingly conforms, while Ginger challenges the borders of what is socially acceptable. Ginger's sexual hunger which arrives with her ovulation two weeks after the incident, is closely linked to her hunger for killing, and in fact, Ginger cannot distinguish between the two. In the following quote she describes how she feels while killing humans and likening it to an orgasm:

“It feels so good. It’s like touching yourself, you know every move, right on the fucking dot! Then after, see fireworks! Supernovas. I’m a goddamn force of nature, I feel like I could do just about anything.”

Ginger’s joy in her newfound power is completely unchecked by herself, but Ginger’s ‘sane double’, her little sister, takes the controlling role. From the point where Ginger’s new powers prove ‘anti-social’, Brigitte attempts to suppress Ginger. I see this relationship as really just one girl trying to conform to society, attempting to suppress the wild sexuality within. Tellingly, the name Ginger also refers to the colour red, while Brigitte means ‘strength’. Ginger, like Little Red Riding Hood, is associated with the colour red and all that this signifies of passion and abandon. Brigitte, on the other hand, is associated with strength - in this instance the strength to control and suppress. Thus Brigitte and Ginger become the struggle within one girl to deal with her burgeoning sexuality which is here the true wolf of the fairy tale. Seen from the perspective of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Ginger is “the madwoman in the attic”, and Brigitte’s mad double. The main male character of the film is Sam, with whom Brigitte forms a friendship and potential love relationship. Because Sam has already successfully killed a werewolf and is intent on finding a cure for lycanthropy, I liken him to the hunter figure who seeks to keep the wild beasts of man in check. Ginger is wary of Brigitte’s friendship with Sam as she, correctly, identifies him as someone out to put an end to her newfound lust for sex and life.
At the bloody conclusion of the film Sam and Brigitte attempt to give Ginger, who is now fully transformed into a werewolf, the cure. Ginger kills Sam and attacks Brigitte, who screams: “I’m not dying in this room with you!” and fatally stabs Ginger. Finally Brigitte owns up to not wanting to be “together forever” and that she intends to conform to society. While Ginger is dying, Brigitte holds her and cries while looking at the photos on the wall of the two of them together. Brigitte is thus mourning the death of the beast within, but understands that it is the only way that she can survive. The film ends with this scene rather than any kind of happy ending, which indicates that the ending is indeed meant to be tragic rather than an instance of the triumph of good over evil.

At first glance Ginger Snaps ultimately seems more rebellious in its words than in its plot. The combination of a consciously feminist script, and the more conventional portrayal of female sexuality as monstrous, as criticised by Barbara Creed, does not offer any solutions or even alternative role models for that which it verbally criticises. I see it as being through the fairy tale angle that its more subtle and hidden rebellion is found. Its use of “Little Red Riding Hood” and its connection to the period is ingenious, and cleverly lays open the hidden messages in the use of the colour red. Ginger becomes a fertile and sexual woman the moment she wears her version of the red cloak: her period blood. Her sudden sexual appetite is then directly connected to the basic physical changes of a girl entering puberty, and the film does not stint on addressing exactly what happens during the woman's monthly cycle. This connection of the fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” to the physiological changes rather than cultural changes surrounding girl- and womanhood, then manages similarly to focus on the fear of biological change, rather than a fear for which culture has found symbolic substitutes – such as sin and guilt. The use of the hunter is also interesting as Brigitte mourns the death of the wolf far more than the death of him, her potential lover and protector. In fact, the male character in the film is a side-note compared to the centrality of Ginger and Brigitte’s relationship. Brigitte’s love for and battle with the wolf, becomes the story of a woman's navigation between what comes natural and of what is expected of her, very much like when Gilbert and Gubar saw a hidden feminist rebellion in Snow White's mad double: the evil queen. Brigitte and her mad double, Ginger, love each other, but the conservative world they live in demands that only Brigitte is allowed to survive. The film’s ending is therefore tragic from a feminist perspective. Ginger Snaps surprises, both by being able to conform to the expectations of the horror genre’s monstrous feminine, while exhibiting a more hidden feminist rebellion. This retelling of the fairy tale thus manages to continue the old tradition of superficially conforming, but secretly objecting to the society into which it is told.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold: Performance and the Natural

© BBC Films 2009

A revisit to one of my favourite films by one of my favourite directors, Andrea Arnold. It just gets me every time.

Fish Tank seems to me a passionate critique of the tendencies of increased performance in young girls. Set on a council estate in Essex, it becomes both an unlikely epic and an intimate collection of tableaux-like depictions of the caged and performing bodies within. It is a place where the TV is always on, and is always showing make-overs, talent shows, music videos and celebrity. The protagonist is 15-year-old Mia, aggressive and ill-adjusted, who lives with her young, sexy and very abusive mother and her younger sister.
To me there are two poles which Mia oscillates between in the course of the film - that of artificial performance and prescribed sexuality on the one hand and the natural (animal) body on the other. The opening of the film quickly juxtaposes these two when Mia starts an unprovoked fight with the girls on the estate who mimic the music video's dance and sexy costumes. She then precedes to attempt to free a nearby chained and neglected horse with a rock: She beats the girls who represent expected performance and the chain which traps the natural animal.
Mia dances herself, but in an empty apartment, and she has, to our knowledge, never shown this to anyone. The confusion of the influences in her life start when she dances in front of a music video on TV, and is seen by her mother's new boyfriend, Connor. Here she is in fact mimicking the sexualised images on the television, and receives positive attention from a man for it. In this scene Conner's body is looked at unashamedly through the eyes of Mia, similar to the gaze of bodies encouraged on the TV between them. The tone of their mutual attraction and their relationship is already set, and the connection made via the sex on TV.
Connor's influence is first to encourage the symbolic freeing of the natural being in Mia: He carries the almost-sleeping girl to bed - she is in an unguarded, natural state. The sound of their breathing is increased as well as close-ups of skin and bodies which gives a sense of two large animals moving. He again carries her when she has hurt her foot (again in an unguarded, vulnerable state), and the same kind of breathing and camerawork is used. In an important scene he takes the family from the oppressive council estate to a scene of nature. In the car he plays the song "California Dreaming".
After Connor's encouragement of her dancing, Mia shows him a flyer searching for young dancing talent. It is unclear whether he guesses that it is in fact an advertisement for erotic dancers, but he tells her to go for it and offers to lend her his camcorder to record herself dancing. By bringing the camera into his admiration of the dancing, he also encourages the captured performance from her which her personal dancing had avoided until then. When Mia is given the camera she starts filming Connor who is changing clothes - again gazing at his body, unashamedly, as if he was on TV. His sexuality is from this point mediated to her through the (video) frame, both when she looks at the video of him while in bed and then when she sees him having sex with her mother framed by the half open door. In this scene Connor is even performing for Mia, as he is aware of her gaze.
The culmination of this presentation of performative sexuality comes when Mia shows Connor her new dance, made for her audition. Connor is watching TV from the couch and Mia takes place in front of the screen, in the spotlight-like glare of the street lamps from outside. He comments on how nice she looks with her hair down. The dance seems to be inspired by the freedom felt on their excursion, as she has chosen "California Dreaming" to dance to. Following the dance Connor initiates sex and talks dirty to her in a alarming change of character. The next morning he leaves. Mia finds out where he lives and discovers that he has a family in a nice, middle class area. This is importantly revealed when she sees a video of his young daughter "singing to daddy" on the camcorder.
Her retaliatory act of kidnapping the daughter and then returning her safely ends in the final scene with Connor and Mia together, where he runs after her over a field - the breathing again emphasised - the two large animals, one fleeing and one chasing. He strikes her once, somehow a more natural and less shocking act than the sex on the TV couch.
The next day Mia goes to the audition which turns out to be for erotic dancers. All the other auditioning girls are sexily dressed, applying make-up and doing their hair. Mia wears her sweatsuit and her hair is in a ponytail. The judges request her to let her hair down, and remark on how pretty it looks - just like Connor did. The realisation that Connor changed from the natural creature she took him for, into the same body of judgement and gaze which sits in an erotic club, is further underlined when "California Dreaming" is put on the sound system. Mia realises that she ended up performing for the male gaze as a titillating prelude to sex, exactly like the performance of the girls on the estate which she despised before. Mia walks out of the audition, leaving behind the CD and decides to leave for Wales with her new-found friend - the kind boy whose brothers' owned the horse she attempted to free.
Throughout the film, the TV only ever shows music videos, makeovers and talent shows, seemingly the only ideals that the girls on the estate are told to strive for in order to succeed as women. Even on the video recording of Connor's daughter, she is singing a pop song from the charts rather than a children's song. Here even the very young girl learns to aspire to the pop star imitation of X-factor, the made-over beauty and finally to the titillating, sexual body. Mia is an illustration of a girl unable to perform to these standards in school, to her friends or her family and ultimately within the arena of sexuality. Mia finally leaves with the guy who, importantly, had sympathy for the chained horse and not the sexy dancer.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Twilight Saga - New Moon: Some Ranting...

© Summit Entertainment 2009

This is about the Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) which I saw, because I sort of liked the first film. Oh ho, what a mistake!

Before ranting though, I will defend why I liked Twilight (2008): It spent a long time creating the right grey, green, purple, wet, kind of ’bruised’ atmosphere, for the heroine, Bella Swan to fall in love in. There is breathless awe in the first hint that Edward Cullen, Vampire Lover, is something special, as he looks into her eyes while stopping a crashing van (ah, already before the teeth come out, death, destruction and love are one). Edward was enough of the shining spectacle that he was supposed to be (almost warranting the chest sparkles...). My favourite scene of him is in the classroom, where he appears to have the white wings of an angel, from a stuffed owl behind him. I also got why Bella Swan was an admirable girl - she would never be featured in one of those shopping/ makeover montages, that seem to forever be attempting to be the ‘empowering’ highlight and turning point of girl driven films. Bella isn’t dressed like Miley Cyrus or most other present day teen icons – in fact I can’t even remember a noticeable wardrobe change throughout the film (except for the prom dress worn with the convenient debasement of a leg cast). To boot, her love for Edward-the-freak comes off as strong and brave, rather than being any kind of damsel-in-distress dependability. So yes, Twilight, I liked it as an adult, I would have freaked as a teenager...

New Moon! Starts with a melodramatic full moon being eclipsed by darkness. OK, this is DARK material. Even though I haven’t read the book, I had, by now, seen a pivotal event many times in the blasted trailer: Bella is left by Edward in order to protect her from the ways of the vampire...
The dreariness of the film has already begun to blur my memory, but I do remember that it starts out by making some clear references to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, as a hint of what’s to come. Right. So I prepare myself for pain and beauty and extreme gravity and danger. Cough. I’m reeeaaady... Nothing happens. Several ’haunting’ emo records later, after having lost most of my sympathy for both Edward’s powers of reasoning as well as Bella’s undying love, I’m face to face with a boy man child in the rain flexing some very big muscles! ... I can at this point conclude that any subtlety, that may have been in the first film, has been trampled by sex; any poignancy about star-crossed lovers numbed with stupidity.
Edward has left to protect Bella, yet appears as a vision, when she’s in danger, thus making the girl seek danger (and of course there’s still loads of leftover supernatural perils about), thus making Edward’s reasoning downright dim-witted. Bella keeps brooding about Edward despite of his ass-hole-like behaviour and in doing so neglects her, caring and patient, friends and family completely. She only livens up again when another man enters the picture, who might love/fancy her (muscle boy man child). And this time Bella is in great need of being saved at EVERY turn of the plot – in fact it’s her way of getting attention from the boys (incidentally, I suddenly picture a lady in a corset doing a faux faint…).

At this point I start to feel that all of the allegations made to the series that Bella is an antifeminist heroine, are warranted (an article on this here). I also find truth in Robert Pattinson, a.k.a. Edward Cullen, saying that his character is little else than an empty sex object (for an excellent article on this film’s objectification of its male characters, see ‘The Edward Cullen Underpants Conundrum’).
So wow, this film manages BOTH to show an example to young girls of a woman with no other goal in life, than for men to fancy her AND make men into stereotypes of female desire. This is double bad!

At the end climax of the film Bella decides to leave her muscle boy man child, who also smells of wet dog, to save Edward. Edward is going to kill himself, because he thinks Bella is dead (ah yes, I see, Romeo and Juliet…). Edward’s stepsister, Alice, who is psychic, comes to Bella first to tell her this. Edward plans to commit suicide, by disobeying vampire rules and being punished for it (what’s wrong with a wooden steak through the heart, I ask?). Bella and Alice rush to Italy, and Bella goes ahead alone since “Edward might read Alice’s mind and hurry the suicide” (surely then he would learn quicker that Bella isn’t dead?). Bella rushes through the crowd and saves the sparkling martyr, and after some chat and the return of the vampires to Bella’s hometown, Edward asks Bella to marry him. Cue HUGE sigh and heavy breathing. THE END.
This finale brings to mind any Jane Austen adaptation where proposal of marriage is the equivalent of Salvation. In New Moon’s modern day setting apparently the supernatural nicely brings back the boundaries, otherwise set by family and society, in the Twilight and New Moon inspirations: Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet. So that’s one thing. But why is marriage back as THE ANSWER for a teenage girl? Yikes! I wash my hands of this filth!

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Antichrist by Lars von Trier: Interpretation

© Zentropa Entertainment 2009

I saw Antichrist prepared for a gothic/horror fantasy! I wasn’t disappointed – there’s no reason to take this film too seriously. It’s a sumptuous, sexy and contrived piece of symbolism about men and women, and their roles in Western society. And it’s very silly too!

Initially I thought the film was misogynist – and that’s a common opinion. I wrote the following interpretation of the film’s view of its lady lead (named ’she’) and of what drives her, and have to some extent changed my opinion.

Spoilers obviously...

The film opens with a couple’s child falling to its death, while they have passionate sex. For a while the film appears to be an investigation into the patterns of grief. This proves to be very wrong – I think ’guilt’ is the overarching theme. The guilt turns out to be about the original sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden.

There are two important revelations, that I choose to highlight to illustrate this: 1.: We learn that ’she’ saw her son before he fell and could have stopped him. 2: ’She’ spent a summer in ’Eden’, their cabin in the woods, alone with her son, where she every day switched his shoes to the wrong foot, causing permanent damage to his feet. During this time she was writing a thesis about historical murders of women, including witch burnings.

I argue that the two lead characters are archetypes of Western gender roles - this could be supported by the fact that they are merely called 'he' and 'she'. He is intellectually superior to her and attempts to control her emotional ’insanity’ with reason throughout the film. She has tried to break free of this cultural restriction/pattern through her thesis (intellectuality) as well as her aggressive 'masculine' sexuality. She acted out her contempt towards the power of men on her son (the shoes - hindering his activity) and maybe even through her complete indifference to being a mother while having sex, as the boy fell to his death.

Tragically she drives her husband to kill her and burn her like a witch, thus enforcing the power she was fighting and punishing her for her ’rebellion’. I think she does it to herself - she ends up believing that the rebellious female must be punished and de-sexualized, because of her part in the death of the son. The fact that she mutilates both her husband’s and her own genitals, is an attempt to reverse the original sin, by making them both ’innocent’ in Eden again.

The film ends with him killing her and leaving the woods. Three animals greet him on his way and he smiles at them – showing affinity with them. Here I felt the most discomfort on behalf of women - does it mean that nature is male...? Western nature is male – or rather, misogyny has become our human nature?

This is good sport and interesting cinema and possibly quite offensive...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Paper Dolls

This used to be a blog for my artwork, which has now moved to my website: Stay if you want to read about films, go if you want to see more of the below:

Based on paintings by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.