Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How many memorable female characters exist outside the Femme Fatale or Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope?

This very long video sparked some friendly internal debate with myself:

(Created by SpareOm, who makes some excellent points, but be warned there are SPOILERS to some great old films)

For those without ten minutes and twenty-nine seconds at their disposal, "Women in Film: Femme Fatale vs. Manic Pixie Dream Girl" argues that the tradition of men imposing their viewpoints in movies often creates a dichotomy of character types for woman: the sexually carnivorous, evil or at least morally ambiguous Femme Fatale, or the sugary, quirky, awkward-but-with-the-gleam-of-magic-in-her-eye Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Y'know, the age-old "Ginger the Sociopath vs. Mary Ann the Thrift Store Shopping Smiths Fan" scenario.

I'm sure there are those who argue that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is the more modern concept, stemming from such bohemian indie girls as Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in just about anything. However, Nathan Rabin, the writer who coined the term MPDG, traces their appearance in films as early as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and presumably all the other screwball heroines of the '30s to beyond. Hell, many people think the ultimate MPDG is the other Hepburn's Holly Golightly.

Yet while I often find myself cringing at Deschanel's antics, I certainly loves me some Kate in Bringing Up Baby, and am always quick to defend such spacy dames as Dora Spenlow and Gracie Allen--who, like the classic MPDG stereotype, lighten their male half's perspective, providing a dizzying distraction from the humdrum ordinariness of life that's bogging down the male protagonist.

But maybe the difference here lies in context. George and Gracie are a comedy team, with George as the straight man; if serving as the comic foil to the straight man qualifies you as an MPDG, does that make Costello one to Abbott? It's important to remember that when they tried out their act on stage in Vaudeville, Gracie was to be the straight man, but her comic timing made her a better fit for the ditz.

As for Dora Spenlow, Dickens, well, spoiler, kills her. That's obviously problematic. But maybe I can overlook the fundamental pixiness of her character because before Dickens chickens out and offs her, he let us--and Dora--know that cavorting around like a girlish infant not only wears thin, but can exhaust a partner rather than uplift him. I like Dora because, hey, she's charming (and MPDG's are charming, otherwise their type wouldn't be so popular), but also because she knows that in the long run, you can't live a full life or create a full identity if that's the behavior you're limiting yourself to.

Therefore I find her efforts to become more mature, to take more charge in her life poignant, and wish that Dickens had seen her through rather than just sorta say, "Nah! She's hopeless." I mean, transforming her from a kook who plays with her dog to a refined, composed Agnes Wickfield wouldn't have felt right either, but why not maintain her playfulness while also letting her mature slightly as a person, maybe? No? Stillbirth? Okie-doke.

As for Bringing Up Baby, maybe the commenter "Kathryn" at The AV Club says it best. This is in reply to Rabin's review of Elizabethtown, where he first brought up the MPDG stereotype in reference to Kirsten Dunst's character:
...the endearingly deranged love interest is much more fun in a slapstick romantic comedy than in sad-sack coming-of-age-too-late tales. "Garden State" would have been much improved had Zach Braff been chased by a leopard.
(To which "Bum Russia With Glove" replied "...then mauled and eaten by one. The end.")

Plus, let's face it, Cary Grant's character (along with George Burns and other screwball heroes) has a distinct, fumbling, and awkward persona of his own. The problem with the male characters in modern MPDG movies is that very "coming-of-age" blandness, the drippy moodiness and Vaguely Troubled Past that makes them such unbelievable downers, that, in comparison, make the MPDG look even more shockingly, cloyingly deranged and cutesy.

Now, in the MPDG's defense, very often she asserts her independence, in a sorta-kinda way. I haven't seen the movie, but from what I've read, Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind states up-front that she's sick of men seeing her as a concept and solution to their problems. Yet too often, this growth is only seen in context of how if affects the man. Her maturity is tied up in his maturity, and we end on his personal growth, not hers.

Take this down-and-outer man and also add "chump" in capital letters a block wide, and there stands the male half of the Femme Fatale equation. On the surface, if you ask me which of the two tropes I prefer between Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Femme Fatale, I would automatically go, "Femme Fatale! Femme Fatale!" Because let's face it, just as MPDGs are charming, Femme Fatales are cool. 

It's okay for a female character to be sexy. It's okay for her to be manipulative and evil. It's okay for us to like the Femme Fatale. Of course it's okay to like the MPDG. But it's important to spot icky, encroaching trends that threaten to fetishize and therefore dehumanize what we like in these characters.

And again, the answer lies in how the male character is affected by the Femme Fatale. As the video points out, the male is either absolutely wrecked by the sheer will-power of evil that is his Fatal Female, or his manliness proves stronger than her empowered womanliness, and she repents. Y'know how criticism of Twilight centers around how Bella is a big moody blank of a character, an "insert-yourself-here" cut-out whose unique...somethingness turns the bad boy good? Just reverse the genders, and that's the worst-case scenario for the Femme Fatale.

 I wouldn't lay the whole blame on male filmmakers. They might have started the trend, but I think women can and have perpetuated these stereotypes. Sometimes it's by merely reversing the genders, like Stephanie Meyers did with Twilight, or else they can feed right into the female roles already outlined for them--especially where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is concerned, which might be why I have more problems with her than the Femme Fatale.

Whereas the Femme Fatale displays an unattainable level of sexiness and awesomeness, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is deemed attractive because of "imperfect" qualities much easier to imagine having: she's goofy, awkward, and childlike. She's a nerd. She doesn't quite fit in. But boy, how her free spirit flies far above the muck of this world, and it just takes that special guy to realize this and be changed forever! Hell yes, that does sound appealing, for both men and women. The guy gets a cute girl. And the girl gets to be worshipped without having to grow up or develop mature emotions of her own. Both sides totally forget that in their combined efforts to be loved unconditionally, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has no concrete desires or ambitions of her own.

Yet how many girls idolize Audrey Hepburn based completely on Holly Golightly? Zooey Deschanel's TV show The New Girl, which is the most overt display of MPDG celebration currently around, is created and written by a woman named Elizabeth Meriwether.

So it's not really a question of who's at fault for these stereotypes, but instead how many memorable female characters exist outside either trope?

Unfortunately, we've come to rely so much on the Femme Fatale/MPDG dynamic that a woman who lacks either trait is often written blandly. See Bella Swann. See your basic idealized ingenue. Strong women are still difficult to write for some reason, so we make them sexually aggressive (i.e., evil or morally ambiguous) or spacy goofballs (i.e., infantilized), and say, "Look. They have traits. That's giving them dimension."

Is it simply because in fiction, the broader the character the more interesting? I mean, James Bond certainly isn't a realistic depiction of your average male. But would we want to see the average male take on Goldfinger, while worrying about picking up the dry-cleaning and struggling with a slight pot-belly? Would we? (I suppose you could argue that's where the Get Smart remake and its like comes in).

When I think of well-rounded female characters I like, I find they're mostly deconstructions of those stereotypes. Some prime examples exist in my beloved Thursday night line-up at NBC. On Community, Alison Brie's wide-eyed Annie Edison is far from my favorite character, but I like that they set her up as this cute, cuddly do-gooder with oh-so adorable awkward quirks, only to often have her reveal these quirks as terrifying and signs that she really should mature. A bit condescending, but at least they call her out for it.

Community's Femme Fatale deconstruction, Gillian Jacobs's Britta Perry, has grown into the show's standout character and is certainly my favorite. She's a hilariously flawed individual who still manages to kick ass in her totally bass-ackwards way. She thinks she's tough, righteous, and independent, and she is; but she's relatable because she gets everything so deliciously wrong at the same time.

Because it's a comedy, Community can get away with revealing these women as not being quite the stand-up representations of feminism they think they are, especially since the men are just as flawed and childlike, and just as often called out for it.

Then there's 30 Rock and my beloved Liz Lemon...oh, my beloved Liz Lemon. She's been getting a lot of flack lately for sliding too much into the pupil role to Jack's paternalistic Jack Donaghy, when years have passed and she should move on. But honestly, I think their characters have become so attuned to one another that they both silently acknowledge they're basically on equal footing now. Take this season's finale: Liz tells the very recently divorced Jack that she may not need his advice about children, but she'd like it all the same. She's not doing it for herself, she's doing it for him: Jack never feels better than when he's speechifying, and as a friend she recognizes he needs to feel like Jack again.

Fey's Liz is a wonderful example of a MPDG deconstruction. She's quirky, "adorkable," and funny, but there's nothing manic or pixie-like or dreamlike about her. She's downright mean a lot of the time. She's frankly unsentimental with the men in her life. Some would argue that the writers push too far making her appear unattractive, but then again I'd pull the "it's comedy" card. The fact she's been in several relationships throughout the show's run and that cartoon-pilot-handsome men like Jon Hamm are attracted to her shows they know Liz Lemon is a pretty, appealing woman, but no man's dream insertion.

Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation does sometimes veer uncomfortably toward MPDG-land, dearly as I love her (which again, is okay). Her boyfriend Ben is likable but rather unexciting, often there only to be amazed by the bubbly insanity that is Leslie. Yet where Leslie differs from the rest of the MPDG ilk is in her clear-cut ambitions, ambitions that drive her far more than her love life ever has on-screen.

And then there's Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. Oh man, how I love Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. April is the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Mirror Universe Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Unlike your standard MPDG, April isn't girlishly high-spirited, she's glumly self-centered. She's not offbeat, she's just lazy as fuck. April doesn't drink deeply from the beauties of life, she:

Retta's Donna, of course, is a classic femme fatale. Don't deny it.

Actually, perhaps the only character in this line-up that not only defies both MPDG and Femme Fatale stereotyping but also eschews that deconstruction to create her own solid personality is the oft-neglected Anne Perkins on Parks & Rec, played by Rashida Jones.

She's one of the least funny characters on the show, but she's likable and relatable, and feels the most real. Perhaps it's because of Jones's acting, which is always superb, but she's never as cloyingly whimsical as the MPDG despite her sweet character, and never heavily sexualized like the Femme Fatale, despite her beauty. She's not perfect--look at her horrible co-dependent relationship with Andy in the beginning of the show and the current madness that is her relationship with Tom--but you don't have to be perfect to be a good female character. In fact, that's an impossible goal. When you are, you float into what I believe is called "Mary Sue" territory on the internets.

Both the characters on the show and the audience wish Anne could be a bit more interesting, and hopefully someday she will be, and other characters written like Anne. There has to be a way in comedy and drama for a woman to have a distinct character--but not a MPDG or Femme Fatale--while still holding everyone's interest.

In fact, there is a way, and it has been done. Clarice Starling. Jane Eyre. Barbara Gordon (though some MESSED UP things have been thrown her way). Lois Lane.

Like I said, it's fun to be sexy like a Femme Fatale, and as goofy as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But we can't continue to have that be the chief attributes of every memorable female character--there needs to be more to them than that. We need the Anne Perkinses. The Clarices. But are they as present as we'd like to think they are?

I ain't being rhetorical here. I invite you, dear reader: who are some of your favorite female characters that defy either category of the Fatale or MPDG? Who are some examples you either like or dislike that do fall into those roles, or lack those qualities but are made bland and uninteresting? I want to know.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows: Did my low expectations save the day? Kind of.

"He's coming."


A few scenes came near to ruining the movie for me. But overall, Burton's consistent gothic mood that prevailed even during some of the goofier scenes, plus a few choice character changes that incorporated surprising elements from the original show, left me more satisfied than I anticipated.

I've been following this project for a while now, what with how I'm an obsessive Dark Shadows fan and all. So I was heartbroken when I saw the idiotic trailer. Then, of course, the collectively crappy reviews came out. My expectations were, well, low. I remembered seeing Sweeney Todd when my expectations were pretty high thanks to fair reviews and my own fangirlish excitement, and I was let down by the lack of humor and cuts to the source material. I think the opposite happened here.

Again, this film is far from flawless. Visually the movie's stunning, but has there ever been a Burton film that wasn't? Aside from his penchant for spirals and saturated colors that can ring a little monotonous, Burton's distinct style is what's he's known for--though often at the expense of character development.

That point can definitely be argued here, and I'd blame that on the rushed story line. Which, frankly, is to be expected in a movie that incorporates plot points from a soap opera that ran over 1,200 episodes.

And about those characterizations. With the exception of Barnabas and Angelique, they were all pretty paltry:

Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis: Before watching the movie, I made the conscious decision to try--try--keeping the original show out of my mind as much as possible. I attempted putting myself in the mindset of someone who's never seen the show. I think as a newbie I'd have been mildly amused by Haley's Willie and then promptly forgotten his character existed. As a fan, I quietly mourned the downgrade of my DS crush from a tortured manservant with a conman past into a shiftless drunk who's barely memorable. Still, Haley's delivery is wry and understated, and though not very memorable, he's passable.

Jonny Lee Miller as Roger Collins: Suffers greatly from limited screen time. Hard to get a feel for Miller's acting, though I didn't really mind how he turned out to be an even bigger douchebag sleaze...bag than the original's Roger. Certainly not as lovable as Louis Edmond's snooty patriarch, but again, Miller was passable.

Gulliver McGrath as David Collins: Very effective little kid who didn't make me want to vomit; again, possibly because we don't see him that much. But when we do he's appropriately soulful and disturbed. I like the inclusion of his mother Laura's ghost, though her actual appearance at the climax feels shoehorned in and ultimately unexplained (Hoffman hints at her cyclical immortality, but no mention of being a phoenix). I wish we could have had some good scenes between he and Vicki; after all, she's the governess who gets through to him in both the original and the revival. Slowly gaining his trust is important to both their characters.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard (has she always used that Grace in her name? I thought she used to be just plain Chloe Moretz): Her Carolyn rubbed me the wrong way. She's given some painfully awkward sullen teen lines (her little outburst during the first breakfast scene is especially clumsy). Moretz got a lot of publicity for this movie, so I was surprised she had no big scenes outside of the werewolf debacle. And that didn't amount to much of a scene. Damn, that stupid werewolf thing. Poor special effect, and too randomly thrown in to be really funny--or dramatic--I don't know what the hell they were going for. "I'm a werewolf. Get over it. Woof," belongs in a Scary Movie sequel, and doesn't gel with the climax's tone. By that point, the action seemed to veer uncomfortably toward spoof, which jarred with the tense mood.

Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman: Wins the prize as starring in the scene that almost made me throw up my hands and proclaim that I hate Tim Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith forever. This movie has problems with career women, apparently. The intelligent and crafty Julia Hoffman, who was admittedly downgraded into playing the lovesick sidekick eventually in the original, is really given an even more overt kick in the ovaries here. She may be a brilliant doctor, but really she just wants to be young and sexy again! I will not ever forgive or forget that blow-job scene. And the dispassionate way Barnabas and Willie dispose of her--Willie says, "I never liked the bitch anyways"-- combined with her clownish desperation make for an insulting and degrading turn. Bonham Carter was very good, but she had no substantial character to play outside of drunk wacko letch.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard: Outside of Barnabas, Angelique, and arguably Vicki, Elizabeth is given the most meat to her character. And of course, Michelle Pfeiffer could just stand there blinking (which she does a great deal of the time here) and still be the classiest part of any production. There's a teasing moment during Alice Cooper's "meh" cameo where she and Carolyn appear to be connecting over things unsaid about Carolyn's father, but unfortunately, nothing comes of it.

Eva Green as Angelique: I'ma gonna go subjective here. Angelique will always be Lara Parker to me just as much as Frid is Barnabas, unfair though that might be to subsequent interpretations. It doesn't help that although Green does well, she's another insulting example of this movie's issue with driven women. Julia Hoffman only conducts scientific experiments so she can be pretty again, and Angelique's only a successful businesswoman because she's a spiteful, horny, pining witch who slinks around most of the time in sexy negligees. Because of the rushed plot, we're never given sufficient reason to understand why she, Julia, and Vicki fall all over themselves for Barnabas. Her deadly infatuation is just there, and while the literal handing of her heart to Barnabas at the end is morbidly touching, and I like that they touch on her possessiveness as being corrosive and pathetic instead of actual love, there just isn't enough sympathy for her character to rise above an offensive though well acted caricature of the ultimate woman scorned.

Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters: I'm gonna say it loud and I'm gonna say it proud: I love, love, love the Maggie Evans twist to her character, but absolutely hate that they neglect her story for so long and keep her flashbacks so brief. But that twist alone made me upgrade my opinion of the movie from "begrudgingly acknowledging it's not terrible" to "actually sort of liking it". The hypnotically saucer-eyed Heathcote looks eerily like a ghostly Jean Shrimpton, and those Mod, early '70s good looks lend her an ethereal grace that holds your attention when the camera settles on her doll-like face. You could argue her inflections border on the wooden side, but I think they possess the proper, grave weight  Alexander Moltke's Victoria had. And yeah, I want her wardrobe like none other.

I actually gasped when she said her first line: "Hello. My name is Maggie Evans." That. Is brilliant. They took the confusion that resulted from the original's surplus of ingenues and used that to the movie's advantage, creating an effectively startling backstory. If only Vicki/Maggie's backstory were given more time to breathe onscreen besides brief snippets at disjointed moments. There's something so strangely touching about Josette's ghost following this child that I couldn't help adoring the inclusion and wanting more of it, see more of their mystical bond. Admittedly, their connection does open up some character problems: my sister took issue with how Burton and Grahame-Smith basically use Josette's ghost as an excuse to wedge in Vicki's romance with Barnabas. It's easy to make them fall in love when she's "destined" to be with him as a conduit to house Josette's spirit. No need to dwell on any scenes that, y'know, establish Vicki's actual relationship with Barnabas.

I wish ardently that in the prologue Josette had more than one line, that Burton had somehow given her a real scene with Barnabas. My ideal scenario: adding in the traditional moment when Barnabas presents her with the music box. To fit that in, they could always take out the blow-job or ceiling sex with Angelique or multiple scenes where Barnabas finds kookier and kookier places to sleep around the house before his coffin arrives. We never really get a sense of Barnabas's love for Josette, so there's no deep connection there for us to recall. He says he loves her. And that's that. While it's cool and all that Burton took the unexpected route of focusing the story on the business side of the Collins family with Barnabas and Angelique's rival canneries, this means that the integral love triangle is shoved in without much fanfare.

Burton does Victoria and Heathcote a disservice forgetting about the character in the wake of Barnabas's revival and his subsequent sexy scenes with Angelique. That said, Ghost Josette might just be my favorite character.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins: I have to say, I wasn't expecting much from him this time around. From the trailer and clips circulating online, his makeup looked awful and obvious, stagey and unrealistic, the spiked bangs were greasy and distracting, and he seemed to be mugging with exaggerated gravitas. But while he didn't exactly blow me away as Barnabas, and the makeup was still terrible, he was good. He has a commanding presence, and a great romantic sensibility.

Still, we can't quite tell why so many gals suddenly want to throw themselves at him. His sex scenes with Angelique were particularly cringe-worthy, because while Green's appropriately bawdy (her words), Depp's Barnabas is too classy to buy as that overt a cassanova. A passionate kiss I would have forgiven in that office scene, but anything else was just uncomfortable instead of funny, at least to my prudish way of thinking.

And as good as Depp was, we should have seen less from his point-of-view. Burton's so attached to the notion that all his films starring Depp should be filmed from the actor's perspective, and that Depp should always be the sad-eyed misfit, that any mystery surrounding Barnabas is nonexistent here. Jonathan Frid always said that the juiciest part about playing Barnabas, and the most cunning side to his character, was "the lie". For all his bloodthirsty tendencies, Barnabas was always the suave, unfailing gentleman when in civilized society, obsessed with keeping his Vampirism secret from the remaining Collins family members. The fish-out-of-water elements in this film fall flat when Barnabas constantly ignores Elizabeth's efforts to conceal his identity; this Barnabas thinks nothing of mentioning the centuries he's been alive and that real silver would cause him to burst into flame. A little fish-out-of-water humor is fine, but when it messes with fundamental elements of Barnabas's character, it just plain doesn't jive.

So there we are where characterization is concerned. Now for that controversial mish-mashed tone. Most complaints stem from what many deem the awkward combination of gothic seriousness and juvenile humor throughout the film. I had surprisingly few complaints there. Well, not really: I've harped on already about the blow-job, the supernatural sex, and the werewolf reveal, but I also dislike the quirky montage that ineptly covers the cannery and house renovations and too-obvious visual vampire gags, and random scenes like the hippie slaughter. These was all too broad, when some of the quieter jokes (like Barnabas sneering at a Troll doll) worked far better when simply passed over quickly without comment. If they just took out the aforementioned loud jokes, however, I thought the quieter humor worked well. While not quite succeeding in comfortably lightening the tension of the moment, Depp inadvertently playing the Casio organ while bemoaning his fate was, c'mon, pretty dang funny. Subtler touches of humor worked better than broader strokes. They helped sweeten the melodrama without overwhelming the dark mood too much.

As my sister once again noted, that the movie was fast-paced was a relief compared to some epically long movies out recently, but scenes like the prologue suffered for it. I could've done without Barnabas's narration there, as it detached us from the action, and again, we only get a brief shot of Josette before the lovely thing hurls herself off Widow's Hill.

But oh, that glorious scene where Victoria rides the train on the way to Collinsport set to Moody Blues's "Nights in White Satin!" That was worth the price of admission, and the feel of the movie was right for Dark Shadows. Danny Elman also composes one of his best, most mature scores to date. Absent is his tendency to go all quirky "bomp-a-bomp-a-tingly-tingly" with his tunes, a tendency that plagues some of his other Burton scores.

If only Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith hadn't forgotten the potential in Victoria's character and her ties to Josette, if only they hadn't neglected the other characters, if they hadn't gone so broad and crude with some of the comedy, if only Christoper Lee were in it more! If they had just not let the plot get away from them and if they had put in a ton more thought into character and had better integrated the broad jokes, Burton and Depp would have had a triumph on their hands. The atmosphere is tremendous and succeeds in leaving me with a dreamy, happily nostalgic feeling, but it could have been even more. As is, we have a movie with a solid, consistently gothic mood and a sweeping romance, but a sweeping romance that's too poorly developed for this movie to be considered a high art example of the gothic camp genre. Burton's Dark Shadows is a fascinating, beautiful oddity where you can always just see the marks they missed. I liked it, but it's a high-flown mess.