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.