This week, I sat in on The A.V. Club’s True Detective review. My analysis: True Detective is a ghost story without a ghost, and with a heart of lurid pulp.
Over at The VideoReport, fearless leader Bill Duggan has an announcement to make, former VideoReporters of years past have some memories to share, your tireless editor keeps on highlighting new releases, and I have one last recommendation for a free rental that will break your heart, and it should.
I’ve been trying to count up how many friendships, marriages, partnerships, and careers Videoport nurtured in that cool, well-stocked cellar, and I can’t even begin to tally ’em all up. Thank you, Videoport, for everything — for even more than the movies, when just the movies would have been gift enough.
When The Fella and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road this week, we first sat through a series of trailers for action franchises, each featuring men in elegant suits and their (much younger) female stars stripped down to underpants, backs turned demurely to the camera but bodies oiled up with the promise of shining treasures to come.
In these trailers, women were reduced to glamorous cuts of meat: a gleaming leg in a high-cut dress, a shimmering shoulder emerging from a bed sheet, water-beaded flanks stepping out of a pool, often with no face in evidence.
By the time the feature started, I was more than annoyed. I was more than frustrated. I was more than furious. I was dehumanized. Frankly, I was primed to see the worst in in Fury Road‘s first act. So when the film presented a bevy of distressed women, scantily clad and bathing in the desert, I drew in a long, angry breath.
Then that scene upends itself, tossing aside the male gaze that most film privileges without even thinking, and the handful of women who drive this story start breathing on their own — not damsels, not trophies, not eye candy. They’re people.
Their bodies are valued in the world of the film, and so is their beauty (and there’s a complicated conversation to have about uncritically reiterating contemporary standards of beauty in apocalyptic film), but Fury Road recognizes what Immortan Joe’s society never does: These women are more than their beauty, more than their bodies. And finally, their bodies are theirs.
They’re clearly survivors of sustained sexual slavery and repeated rape, but there’s no on-screen sexual violence, no threat of rape, no gruesomely told backstories, no lingering detailed flashbacks. The film is violent, extravagantly so, but that violence is never lascivious.
It’s a narrative predicated entirely on the rescue of women held in life-long sexual slavery that never portrays or reenacts the atrocity of rape. In Mad Max: Fury Road, survivors of sexual violence don’t have to persuade the protagonists or the audience of the horrors they suffered. The film believes them, and — overturning the real-world rape-culture narratives we’re steeped in — it expects us to believe them, too.
It’s a tight story economically told. It’s a thrilling explosion of action that never fumbles its narrative thread. It’s a tale that knows how much to say and when to let us fill in the blanks. It’s a rumination on primal connection, the corruption of power on weak and strong alike, and the terrible road to redemption. It’s a woman’s story in which a man tags along for the ride, offering support and help, knowing when to simply sit still and let her take the wheel, or the gun, or the lead. It’s a world in which Furiosa can pay Max and Nux the deceptively deep compliment of deeming them “reliable.” It’s a world in which men and women alike are reduced to things, liberate themselves, and reclaim for their own purposes the attributes that made them prized objects.
And that’s why George Miller’s films will get ALL MY MONEY and — just to pick one trailer we sat through — Mission Impossible never will.
I could have mentioned this back when the season started: I’ve been covering Benched, a legal sitcom created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones and starring Eliza Coupe and Jay Harrington, for The A.V. Club. USA wraps up the first season with back-to-back episodes tonight, and you can catch up with my reviews for the full season here.
It started out as a whip-fast workplace comedy that leaned heavily on Coupe’s facility with physical comedy and open-ended rambling and a plausible but predictable will-they/won’t-they romantic angle between the leads to the detriment of the excellent supporting cast. As sitcoms went, it was entertaining and zippy, but nothing special.
But as the season went on, Benched evolved from a show I enjoyed into a show I loved. The characters developed and deepened (including great roles for Maria Bamford and Oscar Nuñez), the tentative flirtation broadened into a friendship, and the show set its sights audaciously on the legal system, portraying a world where there are no villains, no antagonists, no bad guys or good guys, just an overburdened institution and overworked, underpaid lawyers working within it. I began the season happy to review a new show; I’m ending it hoping — hoping — to see it return for season 2.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a romping example of female agency in limited circumstances. These women work and play together, wresting their power and pleasures from the hands of men with relish.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes upends tired sexist tropes, indulges the female gaze, and showcases fierce female friendship. My new essay, today at The Toast!
My unexpected assessment of The Maya Rudolph Show, last night on NBC: go small or go home.
“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”
Today at The Toast, my essay about motherhood as depicted in Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Others, and El Orfanato.
[note: This isn’t pretty and polished. I’m hammering out rough ideas about True Detective, specifically examining the gender roles of the show and how they are apparently employed as a plot point. This is written after S1E6 aired, and I’m curious to see how it lines up with what we’ll learn in the last two episodes airing in March. Next: the overlooked girls of the Light of the Way School.]
Detective Martin Hart of HBO’s True Detective immerses the show in his literally paternalistic view of the world. in the first few minutes of Ep1, “The Long Bright Dark,” he describes several types of cop, wrapping up with “There can be a burden in authority, in vigilance, like a father’s burden. It was too much for some men.”
Marty neatly pierces his father-in-law’s rants about The Young People Today as old-fogey self-centeredness, but hours later he’s incapable of seeing his own self-centered assurance that his wife and daughters exist only for his comfort and convenience. After cutting short their planned family day, Marty stands by and complains while Maggie makes dinner. Having finally deigned to spend some time with his wife and daughters, he’s upset to face criticism at home, “the one place where there’s supposed to be peace and calm!” Maggie retorts “Who told you that? It’s not always that way. It’s not supposed to be,” but Marty continues with staggering assurance, “It’s supposed to be what I want, it’s supposed to help me.”
For years, Marty luxuriates in the unthinking privilege of believing that his wife, his daughters, his home life all revolve around his pleasure and convenience, as well as the larger conviction that women exist to serve, or service, men. Maggie and Audrey both clearly, concisely refute that idea, but Marty never seems to take it in. He can’t hear what’s spoken to his face, and he can’t see what’s right in front of him.
Marty muses “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In context, he’s talking about his partner, Rust Cohle, but ss Rust points out “People that give me advice, I reckon they’re talking to themselves.”
Marty has become that bad thing, a man without a family. His wife manages to break the cycle of adultery, forgiveness, and reconciliation that has kept her trapped in their marriage by herself transgressing, and so egregiously that Marty cannot overlook or forgive it. She breaks off from him, and given Audrey and Maisey’s hostility and distance toward Marty in their teen years, and their later invisibility, it seems unlikely that they have much relationship with their insensitive, condescending, absent, neglectful father.
He does concede sorrowfully that “the solution to my whole life – that woman, those kids – was right under my nose, and I was watching everything else,” but Marty doesn’t seem to have internalized that harsh truth. Like most of the truths Marty hears about himself, it runs right off his back, even when he’s the one uttering it. Even after his wife forces an irreconcilable split, Marty comfortably invokes family – lumped in with “routine,” especially the busywork of running his own PI and security business – as a sustaining force keeping him active and engaged rather than an enterprise worthy of his attention and nurturing love.
Given his bedrock belief that women exist as accessories and ancillaries to their men, it’s no surprise that Marty also tries to prevent his young girlfriend Lisa from sleeping with other men, even if he has to frighten her into chastity. When we first see Marty visit her apartment, he breaks confidence about the ongoing investigation, urging Lisa to stay home, to stop going to bars and on dates, lest she be murdered like Dora Kelly Lange.
Lisa doesn’t seem fazed by her lover comparing her modest outings to the hazards brooked by a truck-stop sex worker with a handful of drug habits and several criminal acquaintances. She points out that Marty’s trying to have his cake and eat it by keeping her cloistered and waiting for him without making any commitment to her. Marty counters “What good is cake if you can’t eat it?”
Jan, the proprietor of the bunny ranch, immediately pegs Marty as a man keen to control women’s sexual agency. When he spouts outrage at the presence of an underaged sex worker on the ranch, she characterizes his indignation as “holy bullshit” that’s based not on the young woman’s sexual victimization but on her audacity in using sex to make money and control her own destiny rather than performing it as a favor owed to men. “Girls walk this Earth all the time screwing for free. Now, why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ’cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”
Marty’s speech to the two young men caught in a car with his daughter Audrey suggests there’s truth in Jan’s assessment. Just before delivering a brutal beating, Marty taunts them from outside the jail cell, concluding “A man’s game charges a man’s price.” He’s explicitly posing sex – even with his underaged daughter – as a sport for men, and with a price exacted by men.
His logic twists around in a self-serving loop: when he spends his nights getting drunk and banging his girlfriends, he rationalizes it as a necessary release that a police officer, tasked with terrible duties and witness to unspeakable horrors, must take release and catharsis where he finds it “or where it finds you. I mean, in the end, it’s for the good of the family.”
Marty explicitly compares his duties as a lawman to his responsibilities as a father, and it’s no stretch at all to imagine that this includes a responsibility to provide release for those in authority and to cover it up for the good of society, the larger family of humankind.
Rust Cohle’s view of the same question is bleaker. As he tells his drug-supplier, the “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I could do terrible things to people with impunity.”
Marty Hart’s taxonomy of police is brief and vivid: “We all fit a certain category – the bully, the charmer, the, uh, surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain.” From the first moments, I was convinced that the end of Marty’s list described himself and his partner: the man possessed of ungovernable rages and the brain. We’ve since seen Marty’s furies given free rein, and seen Rust’s homespun nihilism and seemingly meticulous attention spin its web around suspects and interrogators alike. Next, I hope to outline the ways in which both Marty’s passions and Rust’s obsessive study both overlook the crucial points of their shared case.
“St. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to express our most intense or obscure passions. But words can be a frail tool to capture the complications and complexities of this thing we call love: the sweet blush of infatuation, the kinship and kindness of true companions, the frenzy of unfettered lust, the torments of jealousy, betrayal, or heartbreak. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that three films set on Valentine’s Day hinge on the fragility and feebleness of words, creating worlds where meaning and reason fall apart.”- Kiss is Kill
Today at The Toast, my guide to three Valentine’s Day films where meaning falls apart: Pontypool, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If you’re looking for a break from the holly-jolly and hall-decking and that abominable Frosty, check out my Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Alternative Christmas Movies at The Toast, where I outline five movies that take place at Christmas without invoking traditional cinematic Christmas sweetness.