India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. 

Tomb Raider

Woman Rescues Princess

Tomb Raider Good news: Tomb Raider (2013) passes the Bechdel Test.  For the unenlightened, a passing grade requires a piece of media to feature two female characters, both with names, sharing a conversation about something other than a man.  Lara Croft, Tomb Raider‘s protagonist, who has finally become a respectable, layered, non-objectified female character after 10+ years of being the quintessential example of poor female imagery in gaming, shoots plenty of breeze with her best friend/roommate Samantha (Sam) about science, survival, filmmaking, and their deep-rooted friendship.  Her rival/frenemy is also female: Joslin Reyes, who considers Lara a greenhorn and blames her for the story’s central shipwreck.  Even the enemy, in the end, is a Sun Goddess (Himiko) who requires another woman to carry on her legacy every generation.

Most of the Bechdel-Test-scrutiny is placed upon media that has widespread influence – that is to say, big-budget films, episodic TV series, video games, and all manner of popular brainjunk, much of which stubbornly retains the view that a man must be a misogynistic, aggressive, meat-eating, alcohol-swilling American cowboy in order to be “masculine,” and women can only be measured by which role they occupy in regards to the man, and how well they can do it: love interest?  Damsel in distress? Dove-eyed sidekick?  Secretary?  Domineering mother?  Stripper?  An old strategy by mostly-or-all-male development teams has been to pander to male audiences by giving the illusion of strong and independent female characters (let’s stay away from the word “empowered,” since we all have different ideas of what that means) through implementation of shopworn stereotypes that still linger in the wrong column of most people’s “sexist or not?” lists.  The Femme Fatale is the one that comes to mind.  Bayonetta, for example, filled the shoes of the Old Lara Croft: she was an action hero who enjoyed murdering enemies with stylized flourishes, after which she’d strike a sexy pose as if she knew the camera was there.  “She uses her sexuality to get what she wants,” someone once told me when I questioned how-the-fuck Bayonetta is an [empowered] character.  We’re talking about a character who wears skin-tight, low-cut black leather, whose legs are twice the length of the rest of her body, and who is built like a telephone pole with two enormous Happy Birthday balloons taped to it.  Is there really any question about the target audience for this character?

But Lara does not enjoy the killing.  Not only does the new Lara Croft game feature un-stupid dialogue between women, but the mostly-or-all-male development team (female writers notwithstanding, since the execs make all the final decisions) resisted even the temptation to have a shot of Lara in her underwear (which they probably could have snuck in, considering she’s trapped on an island wearing the same set of clothes for days straight and would need to clean or dry them after spending hours in pouring rain, muddy jungles, and even a river of blood).  Throughout the adventure, Lara is clad in a tank top, baggy cargo pants, and hiking boots, and can also don a cool-looking bomber jacket.  Even with all of the climbing, rolling, and getting soaked she does, the camera lens is never opportunistic or crude, and never attempts to make Lara an object of the player’s (or anyone else’s) sexual desire.

Sometimes, a big problem occurs when male game developers attempt to verbally sell these games to the public.  Consider that these guys, if I may be so bold, do not, as it were, “get out much” (i.e. social interaction, specifically with and about women, is not on their daily to-do lists, and they’re forced to aim these games at male audiences, despite the fact that plenty of women and girls play video games, too).  Consider also that public speaking is not their forte’.  Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of Tomb Raider, used the word “rape” at a pre-release conference to describe what the island’s scavengers try to do to Lara before she’s forced to kill for the first time.  He also stated – and this miffs me just as badly – “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’”

First off, Lara never becomes a victim of sexual assault in the game.  In one scene, a grizzled island inhabitant who has captured Lara attempts to feel her hip and makes a pretty obvious threat, but before anything goes further, the player is tasked with pressing a button combination that allows Lara to fight back, kill the guy, and escape.  On one level, the enemy character’s actions fit what the developers are trying to say about the people of the island: they’ve been trapped here for years without seeing a woman, and have become savage brainwashed cultists in the meantime, so when they’re tasked with killing Lara anyway, touching her body comes to mind.  Okay, whatever.  But even if the player fails to press the buttons in time and in the right order, the implied sexual assault does not go further (the player does, however, receive what amounts to a “game over”).  With real-life events such as the Steubenville Rape Trial (which I canceled a lesson in order to talk to my students about last week), we don’t need to act out sex crime in games.  Using a term like “rape” to describe what the enemy tries to do to Lara in this scene also perpetuates the inaccurate and frustratingly widespread  assumption that every rapist is a bogeyman in a dark alley (or an island) who jumps out of the shadows to grab the woman, and that the woman always screams and fights.  Young people are impressionable.  If you present this material to a young man enough times, this is how he thinks things are.  Before you say “But this game is for mature audiences; young people aren’t playing it,” consider the fact that when I used to teach kindergarten, I met five year-olds who played Call of Duty.  Send your sixth-grader into GameStop and see what they can’t buy.

Rosenberg’s haphazard comments (which I have to believe were at least partially informed by the need to pander to male gamers who need a “reason” to play female characters in games) caused the problems, nothing in the game itself.  He also likened sexual assault victims to “cornered animal[s],” which again has nothing to do with the actual content of the game, but which is cripplingly reductive and creates a pretty shitty image of his company.  I can only hope he’s looked back on these comments and realized what’s wrong with them (not to mention that one should actually plan out what one says in a public forum).

What disturbs me even more than the rape comment in and of itself is the thought that it was made on purpose.  No, Lara as a character does not ever give the impression of needing protection or help (as appropriately overwhelmed as she is by the story’s events), but was this just a way to get men to want to play the game?  Just like the Femme Fatale, the Rape-and-Revenge trope has only been perpetuated by male storytellers and is aimed at male audiences who get off on the idea of women as victims (whether or not in tandem with the Chicks With Guns trope).  Lara gets plenty roughed-up in this game, even if the player never “dies” or fails at a task.  She jumps off cliffs, slides down waterfalls, is shot non-fatally by arrows, does plenty of bleeding, and spends lots of screen-time tending to her flesh-wounds.  I immediately think of Nathan Drake, the main character of the Uncharted series, who was originally envisioned as the male Lara Croft and who never receives so much as a bruise in his games.  Is this because, when playing a male character, a male player wants to be completely dominant and in control, but with a female character, the titillation that comes with the victim/protection/violence against women nonsense is too much to resist?  I know this is not how all men and male gamers feel, but maybe it’s still what the gaming industry considers a safe bet for getting a game sold.  To briefly counterpoint this, I don’t think even my kindergarteners would have “believed” the story of this game if Lara had emerged from the adventure without a single cut.

Onward.  If I had anything like an epiphany during this game, it was that during the second-to-last scene of the story, after 20-ish nonconsecutive hours of play, I realized that this ended up being a story wherein a woman rescues a princess.  Yes, Sam turns out to be descended from Japanese royalty and is the “chosen one” Himiko requires in order to remain in control of the island.  Lara’s final task in the game is to rescue her.  After she does so, we witness a long sweeping hero-shot of Lara carrying Sam from Himiko’s lair to the beach, where safety awaits.  Throughout the story, the duo have a very chummy rapport.  They are referred to as “best friends” and “roommates” on occasion, and Lara goes to incredible lengths to save Sam multiple times.  Not only is Woman Rescues Princess noteworthy, but there’s some gay subtext here.  I’m not the only one who has noticed; there’s even a Tumblr page devoted to “shipping” the Lara/Sam relationship (note the word relationship; no one is saying “I wish they made out onscreen!”).

This is encouraging: are gamers more willing to accept and love LGBT characters in their games?  Mass Effect 3 included openly gay male and female characters, and the option to place the player character in a steady relationship with either of them (depending on gender of course).  Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Tomb Raider, says this concerning Lara’s sexuality:

“There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure [the developer] would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either. Who knows what the future might hold?…But people have talked about Lara’s boyfriends and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that to be part of it!’ This is about her. I didn’t feel like a boyfriend or that side of things fit into it. But I do like the fact that people speculate about what Lara’s relationship to Sam might have been…”

And the following concerning Lara’s identity as a female character in gaming:

“I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that [Lara] was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular…you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character…And certainly her friendship with Sam, especially when it’s fleshed out in the camera sequences, it’s quite a female friendship. It’s quite sort of playful and fun and girlish. And that underlines Sam’s importance in Lara’s life. They both have their differences, but they’re both ambitious women in their field. And they care a lot for each other. Maybe with a female character it’s easier to show those kind of emotions…But there things—the language she uses, or the way that she interacts—that could be said to be more feminine. I’m very much not talking about her sense of vulnerability or being scared. That again has been rolled out as: male characters aren’t shown as being scared or vulnerable, why should female characters? Well, just because it hasn’t been done with male characters doesn’t make it wrong! It’s probably more of a problem of the way we depict male characters.”

Subtext, then, maybe be enough to work with for now.  More significant is the desire of the game’s fans to see a relationship like this not only canonized, but portrayed as wholesome and equal, not steamy and exploitative.  We certainly have issues with how we portray male characters (see my comments on masculinity above and throughout this blog’s pages), rugged heroes and gay men alike.  When they’re one-note tough guys, no one has a problem.  Same with female characters: if they fit a familiar role, male gamers are satisfied and the game sells.  Give them some substance, realistic quirks and ambitions, anything to rock the boat, and there’s “controversy.”

We need to be able to go all the way with the idea of women being “equals” in gaming if we’re to go there at all.  Mass Effect made strides when revealing that more players, including men, chose to play the female version of Commander Shepard, and BioWare (the game’s developer) subsequently released the final game in the trilogy with a reversible cover that could feature hardened, cool-looking versions of either gender of the hero (yes, you can still have the pervy-looking buzzcut Shepard gracing your shelf if you like).  The previous two game covers, however, feature only the male version of the character.  Why not have the mandatory “FemShep” printed on this one?  Could the assumption be that male gamers would not want a female character, however strong and deep, on display in their home lest their friends consider them – gulp – feminine?  How about the marketing campaign of the new Bioshock Infinite that featured Elizabeth, the male protagonist’s female partner (action partner, not romantic), with her breasts mostly exposed and a crosshair circling her head as if to declare her a victim that must be rescued by any man who would purchase this game, only to realize that in the game, she’s actually a well-developed character who keeps her clothes on?  Come to find out, the game developer left the marketing to another company altogether.  What is it?  The need to “possess” the female character?  The need to let male friends know that you do?  This one really killed me.

With game-scripters like Pratchett taking risks and breathing life into characters like Lara, who has traveled as long a road as any game character to earn her place, maybe we’re not far away from something that truly feels like inhaling new air, something that will dissolve the conflict some of us have about enjoying video games vs. smashing the status quo, or even just admitting to colleagues with preconceived notions about video games (and often how video games should be steadfastly discouraged) that we find enjoyment in this stuff.