Pedro Almodovar & Giving Films A New Face

Ideally I would like to have my video speak for itself, but in case my incoherent rambling doesn’t seem to be articulated well enough in the video below, I’d like to explain that this will be the first in a hopefully long-running series of video essays on the art of Cinema.

With my school semester (and Junior year of undergraduate school) coming to a close, I will start tackling new and different topics. Consequently, I am turning a page in my passion for film academia and am going to start my series “Connect The Dots”, in which I will cover contemporary and classic cinema, finding similarities and drawing conclusions that will hopefully not consist of me blatantly talking out of my self-entitled ass for hours on end.

My favorite video essayist, Tony Zhou recently posted a twitter status that I whole-heartedly agreed with. In it, he explained that  most video essays tackle the same 10 directors (Kubrick, Tarantino, Anderson, etc.) and that there are many greats who still need to be explored. As a nod to Zhou, my first essay will be discussing the work of an artist he would like to see more analyses on: Pedro Almodovar. In fact, I decided to analyze an Almodovar picture that isn’t as highly regarded as most of his others, but in many ways is an underrated gem in my eyes.

This video will discuss the film The Skin I Live In, and how Pedro Almodovar uses his film form to deconstruct heteronormative thought by subverting the narrative of George Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without A Face.

This will probably be my last analysis of gender and sexuality in film for a long while. I believe there are  many other beautiful facets of cinema that deserve attention, and I will probably start focussing on those from now on. Having said that, I thank you for having stuck with me and read my blog. Now bear with me for another 10 minutes and enjoy my analysis of this Spanish mystery thriller.

Hope you enjoy!

Mainstream Cinema’s Heterosexual Privilege and its Discreditation of Drag Culture

I Have Heterosexual Privelege. Thus, I Am Hollywood.

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Ok. Let me start from the top: The perception of the drag community is a fascinating subject that still perplexes individuals towards Eastern Europe and other cultures less aware of the vastness of the LGBTQ+ community. I still remember how growing up in Romania, drag was considered comical and self-deprecating. The idea of performing in drag was not something that was “understood” and the idea of individuals struggling with gender identity was completely off everybody’s radar (and still is to many of the Romanian students I graduated with back in 2012).

How drag is perceived is an interesting discussion, and its something that can’t really be summed up in any one way. Being a straight white male, there’s little I can say about drag culture and what its depiction in a film like Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning means to me on an emotional level. I have to rely on nothing but academia and gut reactions, which feels both morally wrong and ill advised. The reason I say this is because I think that being a drag queen is just as much of a life choice as being a ballet dancer or a screen actor. It requires an absurd amount of dedication with little to no reward. It isn’t something you can just understand. It is a commitment that you can only comprehend if you have tried it yourself or know someone who has done it. Even when Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest, people from eastern European countries were uncomfortable to say the least. As western nations become exponentially more progressive with time, the east is left in the dust, having to quietly suck up the fact that their train of thought is both dated and ignorant.

However, not even western nations completely understand the drag community. Judith Butler’s analysis of Paris Is Burning indicates elements of Hollywood’s false understanding of drag culture. She does this by comparing the real-life circumstances depicted in Livingston’s film with those of mainstream Hollywood productions that center on protagonists in drag. What it ultimately comes down to, is that the queens presented in Livingston’s film are individuals who dress as the opposite gender with the intention of treating it as craft. Sure, its a craft that doesn’t provide high chances of economic success, but its a craft nonetheless, a means of pleasing the masses (or in this case, the minority). Hollywood’s understanding of drag land-locks itself on a foundation of comedy and trickery, as a result of heterosexual privilege. Film consequently tends to present drag as if it serves no purpose other than “hiding in plain sight”.

“We might think Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria or Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot where the anxiety over a possible homosexual consequence is both produced and deflected within the narrative trajectory of the films.” What stands out as a result is the fact that Hollywood never deals with drag issues that are actually present in the drag community. Instead, filmmakers appear to settle for watered-down, jokey interactions that imply that drag is nothing more than a mask to accomplish an (often) selfish end-goal. The list of course goes on and on. Whether Hoffmann dresses in drag to get an acting job or Robin Williams dresses as an old lady in order to be closer to his kids, “this is drag as high-het entertainment, and though these films are surely important to read as cultural texts […] I would be reticent to call them subversive”.

Butler goes on to cover Bell Hooks’ criticism of Paris Is Burning by explaining that “Hooks criticized some productions of gay male drag as misogynist, […] this tradition within feminist thought has argued that drag is offensive to women and that it is an imitation based in ridicule and degradation.” What should always be considered when speaking about drag, is that if there is anything misogynistic in its performance, it is just as much a celebration of femininity in turn. Sure, what a drag queen might do on stage can be perceived as something that a woman wouldn’t want to be objectified as. However, what the person who takes offense should always consider is the fact that this performer is portraying an element of femininity that they are applauding.

Obviously this is just based on my gut instinct, but I would doubt that a drag queen would ever do something on stage that they themselves don’t love about womanhood. After all, a key scene in Paris Is Burning that stood out to me was when a queen was teaching women how to confidently walk and present themselves as women. This complete deconstruction of gender identity is both proof that what we view as feminine is merely a construct, as well as the fact that all genders can cherish the beauty of femininity. This does not mean that it is mandatory for a woman to behave feminine, but it proves that there is nothing misogynistic with females who desire to present themselves as confident, feminine women.

Contemporary culture’s perception of drag is something that I can barely read into. Reading Butler’s comments on Paris Is Burning does enlighten a currently pitch-black stretch of land for me, but it does not make up for the fact that like any sub-culture, I can’t possibly understand its depth if I don’t engage in personal interactions with individuals who identify as members of the drag community. Hollywood’s surface level understanding is actually the perfect illustration of how poorly I understand this community, because much like myself, Hollywood executives seem to know almost nothing about what it really means to be a drag queen, thus leaving the subject to only find its footing in humor that discredits it as a craft.

Consequently in conclusion: I Have Heterosexual Privilege. Thus I Am Hollywood.

Fassbinder’s Deconstruction of Inherent Heteronormativity in Germany’s 70’s Gay Community

Fox & His Friends serves as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s outlet for commenting on Germany’s current social state within the gay community, and how socioeconomic power can buy someone love, but only for as long as it is profitable. It’s narrative centers on a character study similar to that of Annie Hall, only that Annie is now played by a blue-collar Fassbinder by the name of Fox [Franz], who’s recent lottery win has led him into the exploitative arms of a posh industrialist.

Fox & His Friends

The most subtle statement that Rainer Werner Fassbinder tries to make in his film Fox & His Friends is that of inherent hetero-normative expectations that existed within the homosexual circles of Germany. The first scene that begins to establish this ideology is when Fox is driving to the home of his newly acquainted lover Eugen. During this period, the two verbally duke it out, trying to assert themselves as somewhat of an alpha male. Once the two arrive at Eugen’s home, the conversation continues. They call each other “girlfriend” and “honey”, in an attempt to establish who will be the woman in the relationship. The bizarre nature of this hetero-normative interplay is further amplified by the mise-en scene’s use of paintings of naked women, indirectly implying that this relationship can’t exist without somebody taking on this character.

Fox & His Friends

When looking at this sequence objectively from a hetero-normative perspective, Eugen appears to be the “man” in the relationship. Eugen invites Fox home, and pours Fox a drink of alcohol. He engages in small talk until Fox is willing to enter Eugen’s bedroom, at which point Fox jumps onto the bed and lures Eugen in. It’s interesting to note that the entire scene’s dialogue is a pretty much a back and forth between which of the two men will be the woman in the relationship, whilst the visual indicators end up answering this question.

The fact that the two need to come to a decision seems a bit odd at first, but it slowly begins to make sense as the story unravels. Eugen is evidently the dominant in their relationship, at least from a social (and economic) position. Fox often refers to himself as a member of the proletariat, and Eugen’s bourgeois table manners and social circle are barriers that begin to alienate Fox from the relationship.

Eugen treats Fox much like Woody Allen treats Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, indoctrinating and teaching him the ins and outs of his white-collar lifestyle. However, it is Fox that holds the (traditionally male-dominated) position of payment. In fact, this escalates to the degree where Eugen is purely using Fox for his money (a character trait more commonly associated with that of women). What’s brilliant is that Fassbinder manages to keep flip flopping gender expectations by making the audience unsure of who in the relationship is supposed to represent what gender, because at the end of the day, both characters are merely people, not MEN or WOMEN.

Annie Hall

Fox’s wealth is driven to the ground until there is nothing left. Eugen, like any cliche gold-digger, abandons his lover at this point and seeks love somewhere else. At this point, Fox enters a bar that he has returned to numerous times during the course of the film. Here he interacts with two American soldiers that he had spoken to before. The soldiers ask Fox “how much [he] pays”, which turns out to be the last straw on the camels back.

Fox has a nervous breakdown and cries “why do I always have to pay!” This is the single defining sentence of Fassbinder’s film, and elegantly formulates Fassbinder’s thesis about Germany’s inherent hetero-normative ideology within the gay community. Fox doesn’t understand why he needs to pay. Why does he need to take on the role that conservative culture has for for centuries attributed to men? Especially now that Fox has nothing left! Why can’t another man pay for once? In fact, why is it a question at all? Can’t they both simply be people and leave the money out of their love life?

Fox & His Friends

Fassbinder’s conclusion appears bleak and tragic. In a world plagued by heterosexual expectations formed by a hunter-gatherer civilization, a homosexual man can’t find proper footing.

Fox might have his friends in the bar, but regardless if his lover is a blue-collar man he met in the lavatory or a suit-wearing industrialist he met at a country club, they will never split the check.

The Butcher – An Assessment of Lucía Puenzo’s XXY

Lucía Puenzo’s film XXY begs to question what jurisdiction parents have over the gender identity of their children, by crafting an unorthodox coming-of-age tale of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite by the name of Alex. Her father, Kraken is put in the uncomfortable position of hosting Ramiro, a plastic surgeon, after Kraken’s wife invites them over in hopes of convincing him to operate on Alex. Soon enough, Alex finds herself romantically involved with Alvaro, Ramiro’s son. Ramiro is referred to as a “butcher” by Alex, a comment that Alvaro does not approve of. However, as the film progresses, we learn more about Alvaro’s own sexual uncertainties, and begin to understand that Ramiro’s inherent homophobia has caused Alvaro to have lost touch with his father.

XXY

The statement that XXY ultimately makes is that the seemingly “normal” family (Alvaro, Ramiro and his wife Erika) is far more dysfunctional than Alex’s. Ramiro’s profession is objectively not like that of a “butcher”, because he performs operations based on consent. However, his personality, especially from the perspective of Alvaro is far more sinister. Ramiro symbolically butchers the familial bond between him and his son near the end of the film, when Ramiro tells Alvaro that he “will never have the talent that he has” and that he was “worried that he was a fag”.

XXY

Erika is presented as more passive in her bond with Alvaro. What stands out is that she never stands up to support her son. When Erika and Ramiro’s wife, Suli are preparing dinner, Suli cuts herself while chopping a carrot. The representation of this phallic symbol is important because Suli technically doesn’t manage to complete the “surgery” without injuring herself in the process. This indirectly points to the fact that she can’t bring herself to change her daughter in any way, because she loves her just the way she is. However, Erika supports Suli by mending her wound. This visual reference indicates the fact that although Erika isn’t directly responsible for the hypothetical “butchering” of Alex’s gender, she is still an accomplice to the act.

XXY

The objective view on the profession of plastic surgery is not what is put into question in XXY, but rather the idea of someone operating on another individual without their full consent. If Alex would know exactly what she would want, then a gender-related operation would not be considered a butchering of her body. Ramiro appears as a butcher on screen for his cold, unloving relationship with Alvaro, not his professional involvement with Alex’s family.

When Art Reflects Culture

Whether art is a reflection of culture or culture is a reflection of art is a question that remains largely unanswered to this date. However, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s documentary The Celluloid Closet inadvertently takes a stance on how art reflects culture, at least from an LGBTQ+ perspective. The films primary focus is the shifting depiction of homosexual imagery and same-sex affection over the course of cinematic history. What’s fascinating, is the fact that since the dawn of cinema the representation of homosexuality has been on somewhat of an up-and-down wave.

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From the start of cinema to the end of the second world war, tenderness between two males or two women was tolerated and part of the norm. It was only through the general public’s growing realization of the “real-life” LGBTQ+ community, that films started receiving censorship, largely due to the involvement of the Catholic church. With the 1950’s came a period in cinematic history where scripts about gay, lesbian or otherwise queer characters were radically altered in order to fit into these ridiculous standards.

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Male “sissy” humor and lesbian affection slowly became less common as time the years passed, which was no surprise when taking the general public’s opinion of the LGBTQ+ community into consideration. Gay men were not perceived as individual people, but much rather as a bizarre anomaly that couldn’t fit into the hetero-normative spectrum that culture had set out for them. The prude nature of 1950’s America created a sexual repression even among straight on-screen couples, but with time the sexual revolution of the 1960’s helped lift the strict censorship on straight sexual intercourse on screen.

Still from Spartacus

With the AIDS pandemic of the 1980’s, negative perception of gay men skyrocketed, until filmmakers realized the potential of their craft and created films like Philadelphia, that began to give a human face to a minority that had been the butt-end of a joke for countless years. The casting of Tom Hanks was an integral part of this swaying of public opinion, and as homosexual intimacy slowly began to reappear in filmmaking, same-sex tenderness was getting somewhat closer to what it used to be at the dawn of cinema.Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 5.37.46 PMHowever, these signs of affection never became as overt as they used to be. Today, if two men or two women are affectionate on screen, its probably because the film is building up to a sex scene. So although the depiction of LGBTQ+ relations existed, then disappeared, and subsequently reappeared, it never really made its way back in the same, innocent way.Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 5.41.27 PMThe reason for this could be attributed to the fact that silent cinema necessitated a lot of gestures and body contact to emote a characters feelings for one another, even if they wouldn’t be lovers. However, I believe that this has a lot more to do with how art reflects culture. As cultures stance on the LGBTQ+ community shifted, art began removing them from the picture entirely, much like how culture at the time refused to acknowledge their existence. Then as the sexual revolution broke out in the 60’s  and the AIDS pandemic terrified the layman in the 80’s, the LGBTQ+ community received more exposure in cinema, albeit often negative. Today, gay and lesbian relationships exist in film almost primarily from the perspective of sexual affection, frustration, denial and repression. Once again, art is reflecting something relevant in today’s culture, which is sexual and gender identity and the fight for tolerance. Blue is the Warmest ColorThe reason contemporary films about the LGBTQ+ community rarely involve innocent tenderness between two characters of the same sex, is because this feels irrelevant to today’s culture. Even the most progressive films that tackle this subject, like the Palme D’or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color, tackle subjects of sexual orientation with the primary focus being uncertainty and the feeling of being singled out in a community that doesn’t understand you. Maybe one day, when the LGBTQ+ community no longer needs to fight for their rights as much, art will begin to reflect a culture in which protagonists just happen to be members of the LGBTQ+ community, rather than having their sex or gender play an integral part in the films narrative.

50 Shades of Shame

With this weekends release of 50 Shades of Grey, its essential that we consider how mainstream erotica is portrayed on screen. Has it changed at all? A little bit. It’s more explicit, but the film is nothing more than a reiteration of an age old template: Smith explains how 1950’s sex films “assumed her [the female protagonsist] to be frigid”. The male lead is Mr. Grey, a strapping, young bachelor who has taken an interest in a young, unassuming virgin. He feels the need to woo her and they both find themselves in a monochromatic romantic entanglement.

One thing that can be said in favor of 50 Shades is its modern take on 21st century relationships. Anastasia, the female lead ends up abandoning the relationship for her own well being and Mr. Grey never compromises his kinks for her love. There is an evident commentary on the desaturated state of contemporary dating culture, something that finds its footing in the films title. Having said that, Anastasia’s character falls completely short of being compelling outside of her immediate relationship with Mr. Grey, which is why the film fails as a result. Its a prime example of a film that could have been presented as a feminist piece, if the female character had a more coherent voice.

Release: 2015

Dir: Sam-Taylor Johnson

Steve McQueen’s film Shame explores similar themes of loveless white-collar sexual intercourse, and does so with much more taste subtle originality. The film explores incestuous affection and sexual repression, themes that build into more heavily dramatic stakes than the ones presented in 50 Shades. So why is Shame not a hyped piece of erotica the same way 50 Shades is? The answer simply lies in its NC-17 rating [short for No Children / 17 up].

Films that are given the NC-17 rating often don’t receive a wide release, causing the general public to lose interest in them. This can result in box office failure and far worse. Consequently, film studios try their best to avoid releasing films that get an NC-17.

Dir: Steve Mcqueen

Dir: Steve Mcqueen

For more information on how age restrictions are decided, the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated explores what constitutes an R rating versus an NC-17 rating, and how sex is far more likely to be given the dreaded NC-17 than a film with excessive violence. Homosexual intimacy is more likely to receive an NC-17, and so is the portrayal of male genitalia. 50 Shades carefully cuts away just before we ever see Mr. Grey’s penis, whilst one of Shame‘s first shot is of Michael Fassbender completely naked.

This circles back to the core question of what exactly is wrong with Hollywood and female representation? Well the answer is quite simple. Nothing is inherently wrong with Hollywood. The problem more directly lies with the MPAA (Motion Picutre Association of America) and the board of members that decide on age restrictions. This committee of sorts, and their biased, conservative mindset has essentially resulted in a stigmatization of male and female bodies, holding each to a completely different standard.

Dir: Kirby Dick

Dir: Kirby Dick

If the MPAA were to consider female breasts as inappropriate, but male genitalia as acceptable, Hollywood would surely be releasing far more gay relationship films. At the end of the day, the arts (and yes, Hollywood is included) is a progressive, liberal place, and there isn’t any inherent homophobia that is preventing the release of LGBTQ+ releases. However, the MPAA scares off producers from wanting to invest in projects like these, because they are far more likely to receive an NC-17 rating, resulting in poor box office results.

If Hollywood wants to fix itself, it should start with the Motion Picture Association of America

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The 21st Century Female

The depiction of women has undergone moderate changes over the decades since the silent era, but the core prerogatives that motivate female characters remain largely unaltered. Whether housewives, damsels in distress or seductive antagonists, women never experience adventures that transcend their immediate connection to the male lead. In the 1970’s, feminist writer Sharon Smith elegantly summed up her opinion of cinema’s failure of female representation in The Image of Women in Film: Some Suggestions For Future Research. Smith’s excellent consensus is found in her rhetoric: “Can you imagine a male hero confined to two categories, those who overstate their sensuality and those who suppress it?”

Jumping forwards to the 21st century, one might ask if things have at all changed. Optimistically speaking, yes, female characters have certainly become more layered and complex in cinema. Thanks to independent cinema, and female writers and directors, there has been a stronger focus on writing good female characters than in the past. However, female actors are still being unfairly represented and exploited in the film industry. What has changed in Hollywood isn’t the ideology that reinforces this trend, but much rather how studios take advantage of their female players.

In simple words: No, strong female characters are still underutilized, but Hollywood has found a way to play dressage so that audiences believe they are seeing progressive films starring female leads.

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To clarify this argument, one must first put themselves in the shoes of a studio executive (big shoes to fill, right?). When making a movie, everything comes down to money, and with film budgets sometimes even exceeding 100 million USD, a studio will take advantage of every angle they can to draw in a larger audience. Mae West and Marilyn Monroe were screen actors that proved that a film could solely be marketed off of feminine celebrity. When looking at classic cinema, people rarely flocked to see a film because of its female lead. Films lived off of their Humphrey Bogart’s and James Dean’s for the most part. With film budgets increasing exponentially, advertisements would feature everything that could make a film appealing; this also included their female leads. Consequently, contemporary cinema does succeed in fostering more compelling female characters, however their sexual promiscuity is just as relevant as ever.

Smith said “who cares if the lead of The Conversation would be a good lay?” The argument can be made that this is something that has changed in contemporary filmmaking. However, it has changed for the worse. While 1974’s The Conversation stars a relatively unattractive Gene Hackman as its central character, who gets his fair share of sexual relief, contemporary cinema has streamlined both genders so that protagonists must both be attractive if we are going to see them have intercourse. The success of Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bradley Cooper and many others can be directly attributed to their sex appeal, much like their female counterparts. However, the representation of women in contemporary cinema has also had other, more drastic examples of objectification. Men and women are both objectified in modern Hollywood, however, unattractive women have been exploited in a far more inappropriate way than unattractive men.

Melissa McCarthy

A prime example how women are objectified in cinema can unfortunately be found in the success of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. McCarthy’s Oscar nominated performance in the (relatively progressive and forward thinking) hit comedy Bridesmaids catapulted her into mainstream stardom, and also created an oddly uncomfortable subset of misogynistic comedy. Wilson quickly jumped on board this train as well with films like Pitch Perfect and Pain & Gain. The inconvenient truth behind these films is the fact that the comedy is consistently presented from the perspective of a straight-male point of view, causing the comedy to rely entirely on how unattractive these women are. Coming back to Smith’s rhetoric, Wilson and McCarthy both represent a new trend of women who are conventionally considered unattractive, who “overstate their sensuality”. Although this might seem like a platform for overweight female actors to find a access into an industry with high beauty standards, it essentially results in nothing other than body shaming.

Pitch Perfect

Think of it this way: when watching the trailer for Pitch Perfect 2 why do we laugh when Rebel Wilson says “I am obviously the most attractive one”? Why do theaters roll over laughing when McCarthy eats a sandwich off of a naked man in bed? Yes, these characters might be more than the empty, non-responsive shells that once plagued old Hollywood, but the sexist ideology has not changed one bit. Nobody laughs when Steve Buscemi is in a sexual relationship in Boardwalk Empire. John C. Reilly is never the butt-end of a joke when he’s in a romantic entanglement with a beautiful country singer in Walk Hard: The Legend of Dewey Cox. The exploitation of the female body and its sexuality is far more excessive than that of a male.

Obvious Child

Female representation has changed in cinema, but not always for the better. Women (and men to a lesser degree) are exploited for their looks more in the 21st century than ever before, but for every body-shaming comedy comes a film like Young AdultBlue Jasmine, Obvious Child, or Gravity, proving to us that women can undergo adventures that are just as interesting as those of men.

Blue Jasmine