Feigning Feminism: The Problem with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Accepting her Golden Globe for best actress, Frances McDormand announced her support for the women in Hollywood movement by declaring herself “to be a part of the tectonic shift in our industry’s power structure”.  Later that evening, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri went on to win best picture presumably on the back of McDormand’s acting and the feminist message she felt the film portrayed.  But is the juxtaposition of Three Billboards within the women in film movement appropriate?

McDormand’s Mildred Hayes as a character is supposed to embody the women’s empowerment movement.  She rallies against the men who failed to do their job in service of both her and her daughter and exhibits an outrage towards those men.  Her outrage serves as a nationwide catharsis in this tumultuous time.  Women, and to some extent men, are yearning for the dethronement of the patriarchy in the Donald Trump and #MeToo era, and Three Billboards serves as a calculated release to capitalize on that momentum.

While reveling in the catharsis of Mildred’s dismantling of the men who let her down, one must not be blinded to the moments in which the film fails to be properly uplifting of women.  Frances McDormand is an amazing actor, but even the best actors are limited by the script and direction that they are given.  Martin McDonagh as both writer and director intrinsically limits the amount to which Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri can belong to this movement.  Between the characterizations of Mildred and the other women in the film, it becomes clear that McDonagh is merely feigning feminism in hopes of riding the shifting paradigm to commercial success.  His understanding of women lacks depth.  When Mildred is at her strongest, she feels of nothing more than a male protagonist with a pair of breasts; no effort is made to represent female strength.  The concept that strong is equivalent to male remains even when the strength is ostensibly being applied to a woman.

 

Despite the film’s overall flawed nature, some service does need to be offered to Frances McDormand specifically in her portrayal of Mildred Hayes.  Mildred is a damaged woman; she was abused by her cop ex-husband but was denied any retribution when the case came down to “he said she said”.  Separated from him, her life was dealt another blow by the murder of her daughter.  These incidents in relatively quick succession leave the character of Mildred overloaded with pain.  There are few moments in the film when this pain is allowed to surface in a believable way.   The single strongest scene of the film highlights one of these moments.  In the first introduction of the ex-husband, Mildred begins defensive in her interaction with Charlie as he barges into her home.  She is quickly forced to surrender her strong façade when he throws her into a wall, grabbing her by the neck.  Even after he leaves she is shaken and left to contemplate how she ended up in this situation and how she can cope.  Moments like this reflect a depth to Mildred that is unfortunately left unexplored elsewhere.

Even when it comes to Mildred’s strengths, McDonagh isn’t completely oblivious to his leading lady.  The film opens with the lone moment in which Mildred’s strength resonates as genuine to her character.  The decision to rent the titular billboards are aptly equated to as a chess move by their object of ridicule, Sheriff Willoughby.  They reflect an understanding of how others operate and were a calculated decision to force action when other conventions had failed.  As the film’s centerpiece, they introduce Mildred as a tactician; she’s someone who manipulates the situation she was dealt to server her purpose.  Mildred appears a woman who only acts after careful forethought.

These lofty expectations lead to near immediate disappointment.  The first formal complaint against Mildred comes from the town dentist, and in response, Mildred displays none of the tact of the women who brilliantly rented the billboards.  Instead she shows up in his office and resorts to spontaneous violence.  After calculating a move that would induce action while following the letter of the law, she undermines herself by committing assault, jeopardizing her goals.  This impulsivity and aggression is reflective of the masculine ideal of strength; it focuses on reaction instead of action.  Violence is seen as a natural progression despite being the underlying cause of strife.

The betrayal of Mildred’s intuition peaks with the climax of the film.  The span of a few weeks proving insufficient in the finding of her daughter’s killer, Mildred again succumbs to her anger in a destructive manner.  Gone is the woman who used public shaming as a way to encourage action.  In her place is a masculine action hero, committing acts of terrorism as a way to cope.  This turn of character is nothing more than a male power fantasy.  In that moment, any claim to the creation of a strong woman character becomes completely null and void.  McDonagh under the guise of women empowerment, created his own personal Rambo.

 

In contrast to the masculine strength projected by Mildred, all of the other women in the film are weak and contribute nothing to the film.  They either are props to be used by the men of the town, or are played as simple for a degrading insult.  Even if one were to overlook the masculinization of Mildred as merely a symptom of the systemic misogyny in our society and not a conscious decision, the insulting use of all of the other women can be seen as nothing short of malicious.

Denise is the most squandered of the supporting women in the film.  As Mildred’s seemingly only friend, she should have given the viewer an insight into Mildred’s life.  Further, as a black woman in rural Missouri, in a city already shown to have a racism problem, her experiences could easily have helped to flush out the struggles with police effectiveness in Ebbing.  Instead she’s almost immediately jailed on possession charges as a way of hammering home the concept of Officer Dixon’s arrogance and racist tendencies, neither of which needed the additional support to be understood.

Three of the remaining women in the film all serve as pure comic relief.  Dixon’s mother exists only to make a fool of him by her existence.  She provides no meaningful dialogue or character development, but allows the characters and viewers alike the opportunity to laugh at Dixon.  As a woman she could have acted as a liaison for Mildred’s side to one of her greatest detractors.  Instead she is nothing more than an adjective for Dixon: “Lives with his mother”.

While Dixon’s mother could have served a purpose, Red Welby’s Secretary Anne, and Penelope (the current girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband) should have never been included as characters without a drastic re-write.  They are insultingly simple and completely lack any awareness of their surroundings or of how basic human interaction works. The implication is that both of them seem to get by solely on their attractiveness, and that intelligence is something reserved for the men of Ebbing Missouri.

 

Given McDonagh’s rendering of the other women of Ebbing pointless, the testosterone infused version of Mildred can only be opposed by the men of the town.  This, it turns out, serves as the final nail in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s misogynist coffin.  Mildred, despite having every reason to be, isn’t even the hero of her film.  That title, for some reason, is reserved for the misogynistic, racist, homophobic Officer Dixon for which Sam Rockwell also won an acting Golden Globe.

Dixon is the only character who goes through any developmental arc.  He begins the film a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, lazy police officer and ends it a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, dedicated police officer.  After losing his job for assaulting an innocent civilian, he is shocked to learn that for the first time, actions have consequences for white men in rural Missouri (it’s made clear throughout the film that he should have lost his job ten times over at this point).  After losing his job, he shows no remorse for his actions, only for their result.  Somehow in his mind he equates finally taking a level of ownership for his former job as retribution for throwing someone out a window.

In the end, Mildred’s billboards were moot in purpose as the second most despicable character in the film is awarded the title of hero for catching the lone worse one.  By doing his job for the first time, albeit after he lost it, Dixon stakes his claim for the actual lead of the film.  Had Mildred been billed as a secondary character, nothing would have changed.  The film is Dixon’s, and any claim to a feminist motivation behind the film can only be seen as disingenuous when taking the resolution into consideration.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a case of playing to a national conversation despite lacking the necessary content to support the movement.  Martin McDonagh is no more a feminist than any other director, and his most recent outing only receives the accolades it does because of its timing and assumed message on paper.  In reality, Mildred lacks the genuineness in her moments of strength to act as a role model, and no other woman is allowed to be even two dimensional let alone three.  Instead, this supposed feminist piece is yet another story of a privileged white man momentarily losing his way only to be rewarded for fixing one part of his life despite continuing to be an awful person.  Women deserve better than this well-trodden male attempt at feminism.

The Best Films of 2017

It’s the end of the year which can only mean one thing: end of the year lists. As with last year’s I feel like I need to post a full top 25 because there are just too many good films out there. Due to availability, I’ve not been able to view the following films which all could have easily made this list had I been able to see them: A Fantastic Woman, Foxtrot, The Post, Phantom Thread, and Wonderstruck.

Without further ado, the list:

25. Landline – Gillian Robespierre: A great look at familial women relationships. Gillian teams up again with Jenny Slate and it’s clear that they have an intimate understanding and ability to reflect the lives of women.

24. Mudbound – Dee Rees: Some of the biggest hype coming out of Sundance, Mudbound earns its reputation. A black and white family both struggle in rural Alabama but find a connection in themselves. All of this is done while both avoiding anachronisms and not falling pray to the white savior trope.

23. Dawson City: Frozen Time – Bill Morrison: A documentary of a gold mining town told entirely through a collection of film from 1890 – 1930 found buried in the town.

22. Thelma – Joachim Trier: Part lesbian coming of age film, part super hero origin story, and part Norwegian art house. Thelma’s blend of genre puts it ahead of the competing foreign thriller film Raw

21. I, Tonya – Craig Gillespie: While a rather traditional biopic. I, Tonya makes the list because of it’s hilarity. Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding is one of the best performances of the year.

20. The Beguiled – Sofia Coppola: A distinctly feminine take on the Eastwood classic, Sofia explores the female gaze in a way the few films ever have.

19. My Happy Family – Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß: An intimate emotional journey of a Women who unable to take the stress of her living situation leaves her 3-generation home for a small apartment of her own, despite living in a strict patriarchal society.

18. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Noah Baumbach: Adam Sandler is the best he’s been since Punch Drunk love as one of three emotionally stunted adults (Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson round out the three) all struggling with their relationship with their father (Dustin Hoffman).

17. mother! – Darren Aronofsky: One of the more divisive films of the year, ultimately, it’s artistic merits won out for me. The first half in particular was a haunting story of a woman trying to understand her role in life which is strongly connected to her husband.

16. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright: Easily the most fun I had in theaters all year. Edgar Wright’s take on the musical is a fun ride and even the gratuitous violence of the ending. The dedication to pace every scene with the music show’s his love for film

15. All This Panic – Jenny Gage: A documentary shot over three years of a group of teenage girls. They are not famous nor are they involved in any monumental event, but the film just shows what it’s like to be a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood and what their connection with each other looks like.

14. Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve: Wow, I did not expect this to be as good as it was. The cinematography immediately transported me back into the 1982 classic. Villeneuve manages to capture the quiet solidarity that few major Hollywood films would allow to happen but is essential for this film.

13. The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro: Maybe the prettiest film of the year, del Toro’s vision is in full form for Water. As opposed to some of his more recent films, it’s very clear that The Shape of Water was a passion project, not a studio agreement. This love puts Water in the same del Toro category as Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth.

12. The Florida Project – Sean Baker: The decision to tell a story of poverty from the eyes of a 6-year-old (played by an amazing Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) was genius. She doesn’t fully grasp the desperate nature of her situation, but instead is able to explore and adventure with the other children in similar positions. When the adult reality can no longer be hidden from the children their reaction offers a unique look into the world of poverty

11. World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts – Don Hertzfeldt: The sequel to my favorite film of 2015 is almost as amazing as the first. Hertzfeldt’s animation is breathtaking as he uses the simplest stick figures and computer graphics to create a surreal picture of the future and its technology. Using his young niece as Emily Prime again leads to countless humor in the mindful and serious themes.

10. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan: Real talk, I kind of hate Christopher Nolan. His treatment of women is garbage, and his style is overrated all because he did Batman and introduced the mainstream world to a slightly more educated auteur. That said, Dunkirk is brilliant. The film feels cold and desperate perfectly reflecting the experience of its inhabitants. The cinematography, pacing, and score all combine to make an enchanting journey.

9. Good Time – The Safdie Brothers: After robing a bank together, Robert Patinson’s brother is caught, and he spends the night trying to break him out. Pattinson is his all time best working in a Safdie film. He excels at playing desperate for the masters of fruitless desperation. Dark and anxiety inducing Good Time creates an overwhelming cinematic experience.

8. Song to Song – Terrence Malick: After a string of forgettable Malick films, Song to Song marks his return, and is my favorite of his since The New World. The Austin music scene provides a grounding balance to counter Malick’s meandering style. Between this and A Ghost Story (which barely missed the list), Rooney Mara has really cemented herself as the premier American Art-House actress.

7. Columbus – Kogonada: The premise has been dozens of times over. Two unconnected people in search of meaning or guidance cross each other’s path and create an intimate (though not necessarily romantic) relationship. They wander and discuss and help one another find meaning in their lives. Columbus is another of that ilk, and yet somehow much more. By subverting the dialogue heavy standard for the genre with silence and character contemplation, Kogonada creates a cinematic experience outside of the expected.

6. The Square – Ruben Östlund: The follow up to the underseen Force Majeure, the 2017 Cannes Palme d’Or winner is another blend of drama and satire. Exploring both the creative process and the consumption of art, Östlund manages to poke fun at himself and other artistically driven creators, while also demanding a more respectful level of admiration form the consumers of the media.

5. Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig: One of the biggest tearjerkers of the year, after just one film, it’s apparent that Gerwig has the makings of a great auteur. Her voice translates from her writing with Noah Baumbach into her direction as Lady Bird exists in a distinctly Gerwigian world. Focusing on Lady Bird’s relationships during the often-tumultuous final year of high school, Gerwig presents a feminine voice to the male dominated coming of age story.

4. Faces Places – Agnès Varda and JR: Potentially Varda’s last film, Faces Places encapsulates her love for the lives of people in the small French towns. As a team, Varda talks with people and learns of their stories and lives so that JR can best capture them for his giant pasted photographs. Together they highlight the lives of those that would never have a film created about them otherwise.

3. All These Sleepless Nights – Michal Marczak: Of all the experimental documentaries that made my list, this may be the most experimental and is the best of them. Following Kris through a year of Saturday nights, a picture is painted of a young man amid his quarter-life crisis. He mourns love only to find it and fall out again. He searches for answers in drugs, parties, and endless walks through the quiet night.

2. Call Me by Your Name – Luca Guadagnino: A wonderful European queer coming of age story. The young Elio’s pining for the older Oliver pushes him to explore his passions. Beautifully shot Call Me by Your Name is nothing less than a masterpiece. The fact that a film so far from the American standard instead embracing a more European pace and restraint has captured the American consciousness gives me hope for the future of film.

1. Personal Shopper – Olivier Assayas: The combination of Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas is perfect. I honestly don’t know what I can add to that. Stewart is the best actress of her generation, and Assayas tells the personal, emotional stories that play to Stewart’s strengths. Her steady and reserved demeanor is shaken as the events of the film unfold and her frailty is palpable in a way to which none of her contemporaries can hold a candle.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird

New Release Reviews - 20171119 Lady Bird

Directory: Greta Gerwig

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

From her days as a mumblecore (yeah I said it) actress and writer to her relationship, both personally and professionally, with Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig has solidified herself as an indie darling.  Lady Bird marks her debut as a director, but her voice resonates so deeply that it’s like she had always been one.  With just her first film, Gerwig has staked a claim to the title of auteur.  Despite not having an acting roll, every moment of the film seems specifically of the world in which Gerwig’s previous characters exist.

Lady Bird spans a full year, specifically Christine “Lady Bird’s” final year of high school the same year that Gerwig herself graduated (2002-2003).  By focusing on such a tumultuous time in a young woman’s life, the film is able to explore a variety of relationship dynamics without being slave to a traditional plot.  The prospect of leaving the life she’s known for one of her own results in an excuse to experiment with social identities.  Throughout her senior year, she dates two vastly different boys and explores a new, more risqué friend group, leaving her longest friends behind, and tests her connection with family while seeking to leave them behind.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular Lady Bird, a name she bestowed upon herself much to the chagrin of her mother.  Together they serve as each other’s object of antagonization.  Lady Bird as a high school senior can almost taste the incoming freedom that college will allow her, and longs to escape Sacramento which she sees as her prison.  Her mother Marion, Laurie Metcalf, stresses herself with reality.  She works double shifts at the psychiatric clinic so her family can scrape by while her husband is unemployed.  She sees Lady Bird’s ambitions as frivolous quirks that should be stamped out in favor of more plausible ones.  Her motivations reflect the reality that she knows, but this practicality barricades her from understanding her daughter.  Despite these inherent differences in world view, Lady Bird and her mom still maintain a mother daughter relationship.  Little moments between the two of them break through as genuinely sweet connections.

Gerwig’s direction brings voice to the women in her film. Characters are imbued with humanly and react with the nuance that reflects this.  When events don’t turn out how Lady Bird would expect, her emotions reflect the wide gambit that a young woman’s would.  Through all of her trials she seeks refuge in her friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein.  Long evenings crying to Dave Matthew’s Band’s “Crash” in a way the feels both ironic and genuine.  They understand each other deeper than anyone else, and even months of fighting can be forgotten when they need each other.  Their friendship reflects the unique bond that women share.  This connection even more than the mother daughter one exemplifies Gerwig’s inherent understanding of her characters.  The honesty in their emotions brings a level of relatability to the viewer.  Their relationship resonates with other women in its reality.

Lady Bird’s relationships with the men in her life also reflect an understanding from a woman’s side of the interactions.  When catching her boyfriend making out with another guy, she responds with anger.  She has no interest in the opportunity to have a gay best friend, but is hurt and betrayed.  Her emotions need time to heal before she can fulfill the expected stereotypical relationship a less in tune director would default to.  Likewise, her second boyfriend’s nonchalant disregard for her attracts her, but instead of playing off the tired trope of women liking bad boys, she attaches herself to specific traits in him.  She knows that he’s flawed but find that she can use his flaws almost as effectively as he can use her.  She does her best to resist the eventual heartbreak, and when it inevitably comes, she’s able to rebound much quicker because of this arm’s length detachment.

Lady Bird is one of those few films that is genuinely perfect.  Gerwig’s voice is everything that American Independent cinema needs.  She can exchange the tired cliché roles reserved for women in the quirky Sundance genre with genuine, deep, lead performances.  Saoirse Ronan isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, nor is she any other twee trope.  The beauty of Lady Bird’s character and Ronan’s performance is that she’s you and me.  She is every young woman struggling to etch out her place in life resisting the circumstances that would insist she follow a standard path.

The Florida Project

The Florida Project

New Release Reviews - 20171109 The Florida Project

Directory: Sean Baker

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

Some background is necessary before I can get into Sean Baker’s newest film The Florida Project in earnest.  I do my best to go into all films as blind as possible.  I avoid trailers and reviews outside of general buzz as to not cloud my judgement.  Despite going into The Florida Project knowing next to nothing, I was always going to love this film.  Baker’s previous film Tangerine came out right as I was transitioning, and his understanding and depiction of trans women instantly endeared him to me.  For the first time I could recall, a director depicted someone like me as a fully formed person and not a punch line or exploitative cash in.

The Florida Project doesn’t include any trans characters, but Baker’s love for underappreciated communities again shows through.  This time he focuses on a welfare community in an Orlando motel.  Brooklynn Prince plays the young Moonee who lives in a cut-rate room with her mother Halley played by Bria Vinaite.  Moonee spends her days playing with the other children who occupy the nearby hotels and frequently harassing her hotel manager Bobby expertly played by Willem Dafoe.

Despite a rather climactic ending, The Florida Project is sparse on plot instead focusing on relationships like Tangerine.  Moonee is the center of everything and her distinctive relationships with her peers (specially Jancey played by Valeria Cotto), her mother, and her authority figure (Bobby) drive the film.  These relationships from the eyes of a young girl reflect an underserved demographic.  Young coming of age stories from boys are a dime a dozen, but seeing a young girl’s story and relationships is a unique story.

Moonee’s relationship with her peers represent allow her an escape from the struggles that her reality entails.  She befriends Jancey on the day that she and her grandmother move in after earning a less than stellar first impression by covering her grandmother’s car in spit.  Moonee assures Jancey’s mother to “relax, your daughter is safe in my hands” instinctively taking Jancey under her wing.  Moonee has learned how to be a child despite the circumstances, and in her leadership position, includes Jancey on her adventures.

Life, even in the poorest of circumstances maintains its mystery to them.  A “safari” culminating in a cow in a field entertains the same as a trip to Disney World would.  Through these explorations, they form a bond stronger than a normal childhood friendship.  Playdates seem less a source of entertainment, and more a necessity of life be it begging for ice cream and lunch or escaping to the abandoned housing development and pretending they have a better life.

Halley and Moonee’s relationship is the most nuanced of the focuses.  Halley clearly loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but is forced to subject her to dangers in order to do so.  Moonee’s pension for running from authority is a learned skill from her mother.  Together they break the law scalping brand name perfume or stolen Disney passes.  As her situation becomes more and more desperate, she turns to selling sexual favors, but through her love of Moonee turns taking bikini pictures into a bonding time.  The mother daughter bonding and love feels genuine, and brings an additional level of heartbreak to their situation.  Deep down Halley knows that she can’t provide Moonee with the life that she deserves, but sacrifices everything she can to keep them together for as long as possible.  Moonee reciprocates these feelings, but does so through the eyes of a child.  She may not always get along with Halley, but always comes back to her for safety.

Willem Dafoe’s character acts as the bridge between the fantasy of the children, and the reality of their parents.  Given his property for their playground, the children of the welfare hotel constantly create more work for him, and he’s justifiably enraged as they break into the maintenance room and pull the power switch.  And yet, he sees them as they are: children trapped in an unfortunate situation.  Bobby does his best to protect their naivety between urging naked sun bathers to cover and at one point chasing away an assumed predator.  It’s his worry for Moonee that enables his lenience with Halley.  On multiple occasions, he issues her a “final” warning to pay rent on time, but his soft side shows through as he does his best to keep them housed to the extent that he can given his position.

Moonee’s innocence is only broken by the threat of losing her mother when it’s exposed that she’s prostituting herself to maintain rent.  She runs from the social workers to Jancey’s place and finally breaks down in tears as her harsh reality surfaces.  For the first time Moonee starts to cry.  Given the level of hardship she remained unfazed through, the young Prince’s emotion is palpable in its intensity.  Seeing her friend in such a vulnerable place, Jancey instinctively assumes Moonee’s role and takes her on an escape allowing her to remain in childhood if only a little longer.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Current Reviews - Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Directory: Angela Robinson

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

After the blockbuster success of this summer’s Wonder Woman, Angela Robinson aspires to tell a different kind of origin story.  Leaving the world of fantasy, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, delves into the taboo circumstances that led to the character’s inspiration and creation.

The titular Marston, is Radcliffe professor Bill Marston played by Luke Evans.  Aided by his wife Elizabeth (expertly portrayed by Rebecca Hall), an aspiring professor Marston herself, they use one of his psychology courses to lure in a young woman as a research assistant/ subject.  Olive Byrne, Bella Heathcote, catches their interest, and applies for the position.

The intimate nature of their research leads to a sexual and romantic tension growing between the three, and the eventual beginning of a polyamorous relationship.  This relationship had no home in the 1920’s and led to the firing/ expulsion of all three.  Olive’s pregnancy acts as the catalyst they needed to make a go at a hidden, permanent polyamorous relationship.  The second half of the film explores their relationship, and how it influences Bill in his eventual creation of the Wonder Woman comics in its original sexualized nature.

The reality of Wonder Woman’s inspiration comes from decades of Bill Marston’s life experiences, and this scope proves too ambitious for the relatively inexperienced Robinson.  The story of the trio’s time at Radcliffe is the strength of the film, but unfortunately in order to tie their relationship into the Wonder Woman comics, this portion of their lives is relegated to less than half the film.  Once they leave the school 20 years of plot are rushed through to provide the necessary background instead of allowing the three to naturally exist and explore their relationship.

The film may have been better served omitting the Wonder Woman narrative all together.  In addition to scope issues, Bill himself is a dreadfully unlikable character, and using his creation as the driving force of the story is a disservice to the wonder women.  In the opening minutes of the film Elizabeth is introduced as the Marston with intuition into the human psyche.  When first observing Olive, before she even enrolls as their assistant, Bill displays a complete lack of understanding of her circumstances and motivations.  Elizabeth imparts the reality of a woman’s experience while being hounded by men onto him, exposing his naivety.  After Olive joins their research, Bill’s technique is exposed as voyeuristic and perverse.  Throughout the film, Bill is never portrayed as overcoming these character flaws, and as such it is difficult to accept the thesis in the framework that his use of sex in the original Wonder Woman comics is anything but exploitative.

Congruent to the screenplay issues, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women suffers from tonal unevenness.  The strength of the film comes in its levity.  Elizabeth and Olive have a wonderful playfulness to their interaction, but this is frequently bogged down by moments of melodrama as more taboo subjects are introduced in an exploitative manner.  This tonal dichotomy is most apparent in the initial polyamorous sex scene.  Punctuated by verbose score, the exploration in alternating kisses between the three of them screams “Look at me and be shocked”.  Yet after the inciting moments of the scene, the score pivots into a playful brass section and the three of them finally appear to suddenly find enjoyment in their sex, playfully raiding the costume wardrobe of the university stage and engaging in less stringent acts.  They are left to play in a more realistic manner bringing a more human feel.

Numerous flaws notwithstanding, an underlying voice inside me can’t help but scream its adoration for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.  After an Oscar worthy performance in Christine, Rebecca Hall returns and is once again nearly perfect as Elizabeth Marston.  She exhibits brilliant nuance as a woman striving for respect, yet finding herself in a taboo love that threatens what her life ambitions.  In conjunction with Hall’s portrayal, Angela Robinson flexes the screenwriting strength she does possess through Elizabeth and Olive’s interactions.  She captures the inherent difference in the way that men and women perceive others.  Elizabeth and Olive question each other and have intimate discussions genuinely entrenched in a women’s reality.  Their ability to understand the importance of subtext while Bill remains a slave to the overt text reflects a feminine reality in a way that few films do.  Robinson understand the depth of women’s relationships, and in a male driven medium, this depiction of reality is refreshing.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women attempts to do too many things.  Between telling a decades long love story, examining the origins of an iconic superhero, and exploring taboo, sex-positive themes, the film had very little odds to execute any successfully.  Yet Angela Robinson’s understanding of women interaction propped up by Rebecca Hall’s excellence ensured a level of success unique enough to redeem many of its faults.  While not an excellent film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women justifies its existence through its entry as a sex-positive, feminist film.

Paris is Burning My Heart

Paris is Burning

52 Films - 20170824 Paris is Burning

Director: Jennie Livingston
Year: 1990

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”, is a pillar of queer cinema that had managed to evade me until just recently.  In her sole documentary outing to this day, Jennie explores Harlem’s 1980’s queer scene, focusing on the drag balls. Initially held exclusively for traditional drag queens, by the time of filming, they had expanded to include all people of color in Harlem’s queer community.  By focusing on both the balls as well as the stars who imbued the culture, she paints a story of life during that time for these otherwise abandoned people.

The stories of balls’ participants differentiate throughout the documentary varying from a strictly educational fare to a humanizing story of a previously hidden culture.  The elder, yet still elegant, drag queen Dorian Corey acts as tour guide.  Having performed in balls in their infancy when her brand of drag was the only brand, she had seen them evolve into the phenomenon that they had become.  She imparts how they expanded from purely showcasing feminine impersonation to opening their doors to the entire queer community.  They understood that everyone had a persona worth presenting and celebrating.

The expansion of drag culture to encompass individual expansions of all kinds is exemplified as Livingston follows Malcolm McLaren a master ball competitor in the category of his own invention: voguing.  It’s in this section that “Paris is Burning” veers deepest into a more traditional documentary approach.  Malcom and his dance craze are studied, and the origins of the pop culture phenomena are uncovered.  While interesting, and important to uncover these counter cultural roots, the deviation from the personal in this section feels a disservice to the goals of the rest of the film.

The introduction of the houses and house mothers, midway through the documentary, acts as a foil for the voguing section.  In these moments, the audience is both educated of the familial groups the castoffs create and presented with an in intimate view into the lives of the house mothers.  Dorian Corey, a mother of House of Corey herself, describes the purpose of the houses at which point the film directs it’s primary focus to House Xtravaganza.

Dorian’s introduction serves as the necessary background for “Paris is Burning”’s stars to shine.  Angie Xtravaganza, mother of House Xtravaganza, and her children are a returned to throughout the bulk of the film.  Instead of explaining the relationship between house mother and children, their actual relationships are captured.  Simply watching the film, allows the viewer to meet the fabricated family, and empathize with their plight.  Most having been exiled from their blood family, the house members rely on each other.  The houses provide sanctuary from the rampant homophobia and transphobia waiting for them outside.

Standout Xtravaganza star Venus serves as the emotional pillar of the film, outshining the rest of her siblings.  Despite existing in a time unaccepting of her identity, her comfort in herself is an inspiration.  She dreams of becoming a “spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs” radiates naivety and hope.  Her innocence stays pure even as her actions don’t.  She shoplifts and partakes in sex worker to save money for her eventual gender confirmation surgery.

Before the documentary finishes filming however, Venus was strangled to death by a client, presumably distraught by Venus’s transgender identity.  As a trans woman myself, I broke into tears over Venus’s death.  Unable to watch the last twenty minutes until much later, I attempted to process what I saw.  The surrounding presence of transphobia was not hidden from the film, so the potential existed, but Venus was too real to accept her death.  I felt I lost a friend I had only met an hour before.

Personal anger and distress aside, Jennie Livingston was successful in the films goal, and including the details of Venus’s death were and important part of that.  She brings eyes to the Harlem ball scene, and introduces it’s wonderful participates, but the juxtaposition of hatred just outside the ballroom halls is what illuminates the most important purpose of the balls.  They served as a place where these personas could exist in safety since the outside world wouldn’t allow it.  Only through the decision to focus on the people, rather than the events themselves, was the emotional connection created to drive in the importance.  This understanding is why “Paris is Burning” holds up as a queer classic.  It’s more than a documentary of a fad, but a story of people’s lives.