Dear Millicent,

I saw Sucker Punch. Dodai pretty much summed up everything I thought, and there are tons of other reviews around calling it a mix of one operatic costume film (Burlesque, Showgirls, Moulin Rouge) plus one what-is-consciousness movie (Inception) plus fancy action (Tarantino, The 300), and throw in a reference to Charlie’s Angels and video games in general. They are all right (I am waiting for the review that reveals the movie to be generated from the lost journals of a missing cast member of the Pussycat Dolls reality show, which I watched, and it had all the same characters (Robin Antin as Madame Gorski?).

And in a movie that honestly parallels a lobotomy to rape, and sexy dancing to victorious battle, I think we have an example not of “a spank bank” as much as what happens when people (often dudes really enjoying some insane dude privilege) try to get all feminist, excited that “empowerment” can serve you, me, and the dream demographic of a major industry film: the dudest of dudes. All complexity becomes flattened, struggle becomes a simple syrup of exerted facial expressions and running, and deep meaning is supposed to be delivered by false analogy.

I imagine the development meetings for this film (maybe starring Privilege Denying Dude), and every time somebody questioned the film, the answer would make all powerless by its agressively chill and rotund logic:

Producer: “Do you think she would imagine herself in that skirt? Because, like, it’s her head, not the anybody else’s.”

Snyder: “No, don’t you see. That is the statement. She is fighting how sexualized she is, so she has to be sexualized to do it. It’s empowering because it’s degrading, but we’re saying that’s how it is, you know. We’re shitting on the system, and also showing how the system makes people, which will all look hot, promise.”

Producer: “Really, it seems like the girls are just being kind of exploited by their captors, and the director, and the audience.”

Snyder: “Exactly! You got it. We are saying that it’s hard out there to be a girl. Men suck.”

Producer: “Right, but here all the women lose, and their action sequences don’t mean anything. So….”

Snyder: “No man, it ends with hope. But, like, you can’t win with the system right now. You have to use your tits to get by, and that shit will tear you up. We’re being real, and not. You just can’t see it.”

Producer: “But we’re doing the tearing?”

Snyder: “Exactly. It’s like, the character Blondie is a brunette. Get it?  I don’t think you get what I’m saying. We are bringing this shit home.”

I imagine this is also what it is like to have James Franco in your graduate seminar. It also explains the inane narration that takes place at the beginning and end of the movie (string together the first sentences of all motivational posters, or lyrics from The Crow soundtrack, insert into film). So, what could have been something ripe and totally compelling (I really was looking forward to a kind of bad-ass bonkers version of Mona Lisa Smile), becomes something that swears it’s art because it had some ideas. It becomes the poem we all wrote when we started journaling. You’re 13, and it’s about beaches and life.

If I’m going to sit through somebody’s revelations about sex and violence, I would much rather have just listened to this song for two hours. I encourage you to listen to it while you finish this post.

Sucker Punch makes Tarantino look like a master of subtlety (a true feat), and by using the same tools that Tarantino and Luhrman rely on to create high theater, Snyder exposes how manipulative theatrics are and how well others use them. He also exposes the risk of going high gloss if you don’t pull it off: the sham is revealed and delight fades to a defensive watch.

My brain was kind of exploding during this movie (there are cell phone charms on her gun! there is man who is tan in all weathers! they prostituted a Bjork song!), but in one of the more minor strokes, I was reminded of The Other Guys. When I saw that movie, I couldn’t tell if it was good intentions mucked up, or a meaningful catastrophe. The makers seemed to be attempting the same thing as Sucker Punch does: to call out a system while celebrating that same system, and profiting from both sides of the audience.  Sucker Punch makes The Other Guys look wonderfully soft in retrospect, its insults now demoted to a sheepish array of bad jokes as Sucker Punch takes the assault cake.

It does this double-dance even in the title, warning that the movie will indeed be an un/expected attack and defeat. Snyder wins again. When asked about the title, he said it doesn’t

” even try to encapsulate what the film is, or even what it isn’t… Sucker Punch is a story of redemption, friendship, imagination and freedom – and when the curtain goes up, that’s true no matter which side of the looking glass you’re on.”

So again, all you have to do is pretend you are constructing an important paradox, collage a speech from pieces of motivational posters, assume everything, explore nothing, and there you have it. You made empowerment, and the best part is, since you’ve said nothing, you can deflect all the criticisms coming your way. Congrats!



PS: The movie ends with the line, “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!” I had to let Mr. CF down easy that this was not a message for him. Well, except it was. Sans female body, he didn’t have any of the weapons to fight with, and I assume the line was a direct call for women to start mesmerizing their menfolk with flashes of inner-thigh while also passively imagining their violent deaths. A fight I can honestly say has never been recommended to me before (and the idea of the same speech at the end of The 300 amazes me).  It did make me think of Virginie Despentes’ take on provocative clothing in King Kong Theory, where she offers that young women dress “sluttily” because they have so much power, and a short skirt or a flash of cleavage is a way to soothe men, and to reassure them that the world is as it should be.

My Question for The Other Guys

Dear Millicent,

My big question after watching The Other Guys stems from a helpful checklist in an old Emily the Strange Address book I once had (and a qualifier that would be helpful in a cellphone address book as well): after writing in somebody’s info you marked them either “part of the posse” or “part of the problem.” I can’t decide which box this movies gets ticked.

The movie very obviously satires the machismo of the cop movie genre by loudly riffing with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson fulfilling every cliche of buddy cop drama possible, and then centering on their opposite as the two protagonists. Instead of leather jacket wearing hotrodders, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are their own brand of screwed up guys stationed in mediocrity.  Ferrell is a gullible accountant who carries a wooden gun and enjoys making apps for his iphone. Wahlberg’s career was re-aligned when he accidentally shot Derek Jeter, losing the World Series for New York.  After the two rockstar cops meet the kind of mortality the genre always allows them to evade, these two try to step up and take their place.

And it’s funny to see the basic Bad Boys formula get poked at, and almost skewered. It’s funny to see Will Ferrell say things like “I think I got so drunk last night I ate a tube of toothpaste thinking it was astronaut food.”  These cops drive a Prius, their captain has a second job at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and there is actual paperwork to do and the movie explains who does it.

At first glance, the poking isn’t sharp enough to cut or skewer.  The movie wobbles between joke and these guys actually becoming the trite stereotype the movie originally insisted on removing.  There is an unwieldy critique of white collar crime and the government bailout system riding underneath the plot (and fully installed in the credits–all interesting, but distracting).  By the end, they seem like nicer versions of Jackson and Johnson, their arc stalled out midway, having jettisoned the satire for plot completion.

And, my feminist hackles got all hackled up early on…at which point I sat in the theater with my lips pursed and thought “does my feminism blind me from seeing the larger whole? Can I now not appreciate something because it fails on one level that happens to be particularly important to me? Is this why feminists are so often accused of being humorless?” To which I then thought, “I’d prefer my humor to not be working against my general beliefs, and if that makes me a stalwart, then so be it.”  To which I then thought, “I really wish there were more women in power with these movies not to make things more feminine, but to just shed some goddamn light on how wack all this is.” To which I then thought of Louis C.K. saying in a standup routine, “It is great to be a white man in America. Really, I would reup every time!”  And then I started paying attention again to the movie.

Here were my initial balks:

  • To show his dislike of Ferrell’s character, Wahlberg says “even the sound of his piss is feminine.”
  • To show his dislike of Ferrell’s Prius, Wahlberg says “it feels like I am actually in a vagina.”
  • The other cops agree: to deride the Prius, they say things like “it looks like a tampon on wheels.” There are several of these, all comparing the Prius as a particularly female car, and thus an obvious insult.
  • Ferrell is a total asshole to his wife, at one point verging on abusive, and she coddles him accordingly.
  • Wahlberg woos a woman by stalking her, which she first describes as creepy, but then eventually marries him.
  • There are four women in the movie: hot wife, sweet girlfriend, shrewish ex, Anne Heche.
  • Ferrell has a history as a pimp, which he learns to embrace and accept, which makes him a better man.

I left the movie, thinking it was okay as a gesture of comedy, but disappointed by the sexism, and the fact that if this was indeed made for adolescent boys, then Priuses had become untouchable, and the idea that feminine=bad (and funny!) had been reinforced.

But, then I thought, maybe everything in the movie had been an attempt, perhaps unsuccessfully, to prod the original stereotype. Maybe even down to the sexism, it was mocking the ridiculous masculinity of the cop genre.

As counterpoint to my original balks (a rebalking!):

  • Wahlberg’s hatred of his partner’s “weakness” is overplayed to show the fear of femininity in cop movie culture
  • The bro rant against the Prius is overplayed to emphasize the above, and to highlight the general nonsensical misogyny of the genre
  • Eva Mendes’ role is a play on how often ugly cops have gorgeous wives they mistreat, and these wives often conveniently announce a pregnancy to raise the stakes, as well as always exist to offer the downtrodden male cop succor and sex (and dinner).
  • Wahlberg’s stalking is a direct reference to Carlito’s Way, where Carlito does indeed stalk Penelope Anne Miller in her ballet class, which is portrayed as romantic.
  • There aren’t any women besides wives, girlfriend’s, and a hooker or two in cop movies.
  • Ferrell’s pimp past as a take on the dark side the cops are given to show their understanding of the law, and the animal within.

And so, instead of being irritatingly blind and glib, the movie becomes savvy, part of the posse, leaning towards a feminist critique of masculinity. And, this might have actually been a key theme in the original script.  If it was in there, the movie was re-shaped so unevenly by its final product,  this theme is smothered enough to almost become invisible, and certainly for the 14-year-olds out there watching, non-existent.

Confusingly, Entertainment Weekly reviewed the movie as  “a comedy of manhood for the age of emasculation.”  Emasculation here seems like the wrong word, and leans towards the old school of offense.  Perhaps what it tried to be was a comedy of manhood for the age of men as real people.  Now, if the ladies (and the poor Prius) could get the same service.