Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Problems with: The Feminism in Trainwreck

WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the movie Trainwreck. As in, I spoil the entire damn movie and talk about it like you've watched it. While having seen the movie is not essential to reading this, it does give you more context for the points I bring up, and of course do not read further if you wish to see the movie spoiler-free.

So. The new Ghostbusters movie has caused a bit of a stir.

This has relevance to my point I SWEAR IT!!!

The remake (I don’t care if it has an entirely different cast of characters-it’s *not* a reboot) of the beloved 80s horror-comedy has been pretty controversial ever since its announcement. With the release of the trailer in February, things did not really improve, being the most disliked one on YouTube.

As for me? Yeah, that first trailer looked like shit! While I’m not burning my bridges like others are, I’m still going to go see it, I don’t expect much more than a slightly average slapstick sex comedy like Paul Feig’s other work.

What I do find interesting, however, is the reaction to it because of it starring women. While this isn’t the majority of concern surrounding it, and certainly there are other things to dislike about it based on the trailer, this idea of pushing this ‘feminist agenda’ and sort of overreaching is an interesting one.

Frankly, it’s complete crap-people seem to push this ‘feminist’ label onto the new Ghostbusters movie where nothing seems to show that it is outside of 1. It gender flipped the cast, and 2. There was one photo pushed out there that promoted the fact that they employed a lot of women on a film set, which is not that common. But people still have this attitude, not helped with Amy Pascal (producer and former Chairperson of Sony Pictures) really pushing for this all-female angle in its promotion.

Women happy they're in a job=THEY RUINED MY CHILDHOOD!

Would the incendiary reaction have changed all that much? Probably not, and I don’t really fault the cast or anybody working on it for that. It has some pretty talented people, but I do think we should get passed this idea that you can label a movie as ‘feminist’ instead of it happening to be one because it follows and promotes ideas in this school of thought.

This is where my problem with Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck comes in.

See? How's THAT for a topical jumping on point?!

The idea of Trainwreck is great! It’s not often we get a movie starring a female character who is unapologetically promiscuous, liquored up or stoned a lot of the time. Usually, the place for women in these kinds of sex comedies is being the cool object or the nagging obstacle for the Seth Rogen/James Franco/etc. type characters. That shouldn’t be the case, and it’s great that this is put to the test.

And I actually like Amy Schumer. Not all of her comedy hits for me, but when it does, she has a sharpness and confident force of hilarity that is both broadly appealing and completely her own. I do recommend her stand-up and sketch show; the world needs a lot more Amy Schumers than it doesn’t.

I'm not the first to praise the shit out of this sketch. I  shan't be the last
What is a ‘feminist movie’?

So, before I go any further, let me clarify a few things about what I mean about ‘feminist movie’ before I get misconstrued. No, I’m not against examining idea from the gender movement; in fact I openly embrace them. My issue is more when these ideas are attributed towards works that actually follow the mould and reinforce certain gender normative ideas rather than challenge them.

A ‘feminist movie’ doesn’t have to be break down the nuanced details of women’s place in the world and the unfair burdens put on them because of that. Nor does it have to be about kick ass women doing kick ass things because they kick ass. In this context, it’s about pushing a woman’s rightful place in cinema in a positive or even subversive light that doesn’t bow down to or embellish tired gendered stereotypes set up by traditional Hollywood screenplays.

(Side-note: With all this said, it’s not up to me (or anyone, really) to define what feminism is and isn’t, and how it’s portrayed in film. If you think I’m inaccurate in my analysis, please call me out on it and outline why you think I’m wrong. If nothing else, the role of women in film and how it can evolve should be discussed, so please feel free to debate me and let this be a conversation starter. I await being proven wrong-I’m very seldom right.)

Here's an image of Sarah Connor for no reason

With the above framework I’ve set up in mind, Trainwreck being called ‘feminist’ is due to how its lead breaks traditional feminine roles usually kept within these broadly appealing, mainstream comedies. As stated above, it’s the girl who fucks around, gets drunk and stoned and does what she wants. Great, right?

I’m not the only one who thinks this, I just decided to write about it over a year after the film came out. Because if you want to buck a trend, you discuss it ages after it died! There are tons of articles online about why this movie is and isn’t feminist, and you should so check them out. If nothing else, I think this movie’s overall reputation is worth talking about. I mean, it was nominated for Golden Globes! So it’s relevant. Kinda.

So, where does Trainwreck fail to live up to this feminist standard? I guess I’ll go into my first point, then:

1.    Amy’s relationship with her father

No, her having a relationship with her father isn’t automatic grounds for ‘not feminism’ and that’s ridiculous. This is more to do with her characterisation. As in he is the reason she is the way she is.

The movie opens with a scene of the father instilling his rather crude and laissez faire life advice on his pretty young, impressionable daughters. While this moment is funny, it does outline that Amy (as in her character name is Amy-there are a lot of Amys in this piece) doesn’t do all the stuff she does when she’s older because she wants to, but because she’s loyally following her father’s advice.

Think about this. Remember that scene where it explains the reason why Seth Rogen likes smoking pot? Or why James Franco likes fucking around him? Or smoking pot? Or going to every college in America? Or why Jonah Hill is a way better actor than anybody gives him credit for, and why he likes smoking pot? No, because it’s not really necessary.

All the flashback does is lampshade how Amy is ‘wrong’ for following her father’s advice, while her sister is the ‘good girl’ because she doesn’t do so, and has a husband and stepchild. This is not only a really clichéd contrast (especially with how milquetoast and personality-less her sister is), it just reinforces the attitude that Amy’s behaviour is ‘wrong’ because she listened to her father’s advice and didn’t settle down in her 30s.

Her relationship with her dad is just odd in general. It’s implied that she holds onto his poisonous life advice as some inherent devotion to him, going so far as to ignore his clear faults (or at least passively accept them and not letting them bother her). The movie acts like this is going somewhere, especially as there’s a good bit of conflict over her and her sister with it…and it doesn’t. If the movie’s message, I think, is to not let life pass you by because you’re obsessed with the fun parts of it, wouldn’t having Amy confront her dad and/or his philosophy be a key turning point? I mean, she clearly gets over it, but never openly acknowledges how her dad’s attitudes apparently negatively affected her life, according to every other character (I’ll get to that), and he only seems to be there passed the opening scene so they can have a contrived emotional moment after he dies.

2.    How is Amy a train wreck?

A minor point of contention, but the whole premise of Amy being a ‘train wreck’ is a little off. I mean yeah, she sleeps around behind John Cena’s back, but she never makes a commitment to him and it’s him who reads too heavily into it. She drinks and smokes weed a lot, but not to the point where it’s an addiction. I mean, she’s got a pretty killer job at a magazine, that connects her to celebrities and a nice office, she’s got a good place, a great relationship with her family (despite the issues raised above, which is mostly untouched on subtext). Nothing in her life is a train wreck.

Or is it simply because she’s in her 30s and she makes the choice to not settle down, despite seeming content with this? Is this why?

Moving on!

3.    She is constantly being judged

Holy shit is it annoying! This movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be about a woman who learns the errors of her ways and grow up, but also have her party all the time and be free. In order to compensate this, it has other characters point out the supposed ‘wrong’ things she does, and it borders on puritanical.

Like, nearly every interaction with her sister is either about hammering in how Amy needs a man and to settle down or Amy treating her like shit. Their scenes are easily some of the worst, as its repeating this shit over and over again. Hell, even when she tries to have a relationship with Bill Hader’s character later on, she gets shit on by her dad and told it won’t last! This woman cannot win with her loved ones.

One of the main things she is judged on is having a fear or just lack of interest in commitment. This is brought up constantly, and it’s one of the movie’s main themes. If they had acknowledged her baggage over not wanting to settle down at the ripe old age of 30-something, and developed her relationship more gradually with her letting her walls down instead of them being forced down (like, Hader rather heavily insists on them cuddling despite Amy’s protests, as well as insists they continue dating), then they could have been onto something interesting. What’s really grating about this, however, is that she seems almost pressured into ‘falling’ for Hader, and only shows the slightest of interest outside of that.

Now, her commitment shit is more of an issue on societal standards on needing to ‘settle down’ at a certain age and start a family, which is based on unfair puritanical standards that this movie certainly didn’t hold up, as well as needing a ‘happy ending’ for our silly little comedy while having it make sense within the context of the story. Having said that, this is being praised for breaking away from traditional tropes in Hollywood surrounding women, so this is a weak argument, and it’s still annoying how many people insist that Amy attempt a serious commitment without her showing that much of an interest in doing so.

Also the movie has this weird zen about celebrating her messy alcoholism and weed smoking, even for the source of good natured comedy, and also making her out to be a mess because of it. It’s more connected to my ‘labelled trainwreck’ point, but it bears repeating as characters to bring this up in weirdly cutting and disparaging ways. Now, sometimes it’s just them being dicks, but they’re also legitimately trying to tell her to quell her actions despite no indications that drinking or smoking is ruining her life in any significant way. The only time we see drinking actually mess her life up is when she nearly sleeps with their baby-Flash intern, not realising he’s underage, and getting fired for it. As uncomfortable as this moment is, it feels really contrived, because they just didn’t know how to have Amy ‘sort her life out’ and get her amazingly perfect boyfriend back who chewed her the fuck out because she had to take a business call.

Which brings me to my next point:

4.    The men in her life are seen in favourable lights, even when they shouldn’t be

This also applies to her dad, but I already went over him, so it doesn’t need repeating.
So Amy has two men she’s romantically attached to in the movie: John Cena and Bill Hader (I know they have names, but do you really care?). I want to discuss the ways these relationships end (in Hader’s case temporarily), and how both scenes go out of their way to make Amy look 100% in the wrong. I’ll go into Cena’s first, as he’s in the movie beforehand and, if I’m being honest, he’s a better character.

Like, okay, he’s mostly a joke character that is only in the first half hour or so, and the closet jokes get REALLY old, but he’s legitimately sweet and naïve and clearly has a lot of confidence issues. This is helped by the fact that John Cena probably gives one of the better performance in the film.

Also, the reasons for their fight are legitimate from his side. I mean, it’s shitty that he looked through her phone (and fuck the explanation of him turning it off-she was coming back!), but at the same time it’s equally as shitty that she wasn’t open about the fact that she was sleeping with other people.

At the same time, however, and with all respect given to the fact that Cena is not entirely without reason to be upset, they never agreed to be in a committed relationship. Not that that excuses her keeping it from him, but she never tries to argue her case against this. He clearly took their relationship way more seriously than she did, but she’s made out to be the bitch of Hell for doing this. Not helped by her drinking and smoking, which the movie AGAIN criticises her for doing, but also renders her apparently incapable of defending herself.

This whole thing is so awkwardly framed to make Cena look 100% like the victim without offering any kind of remorse or introspection on Amy’s behalf, OR allowing her any stake in the argument. It takes what could have been a decent scene and poses it in a way that just paints our main character in an unsympathetic light. All to badly point out how shitty her commitaphobic tendencies are.

Anyway, enough about Cena. Let’s talk Hader.

Last known publicity shot of Bill Hader

So Bill Hader is just perfect. He volunteers for Doctors Without Borders, he’s friendly and respectful to everybody he knows, he’s a great friend, a good listener, fun and loose while also being stable, you get the picture. And sure, the movie makes him socially awkward for, like, one joke. And that’s about all the flaws we get until later. As love interests go, he’s pretty bland, but Hader and Schumer do have decent chemistry. I’ve mentioned the annoying stuff about him insisting on going out with her, which is weird, but everybody decides what direction Amy’s life takes, so whatever. So now I’m pretty much gonna skip ahead to their shitty break-up now.

So there’s this scene near the end of the movie where they need the conflict to transition the second act into the thi-where Hader is getting an award for being such a great guy. In the middle of his speech, Amy’s boss threatens to fire her unless she answers the phone. So she does, leaving his speech halfway, and this ruffles up Hader’s feathers something fierce. They get into a massive argument about it, Amy is called out for her drug use again, and they stay up to fight, causing him to be tired at work and fuck up majorly, and they break up.

So, yeah…fuck Hader. I’m sorry, I get that the award was prestigious, but Amy’s crazy-ass boss (TILDA SWINTON, WHYYYYYYY ARE YOU IN THIS?!?!?!?!!) threatened to fire her if she didn’t reply. He even tries to say that she should have turned her phone off, but still, she HAD to answer it. I get that he’s upset, but he’s taking this way too personally and being an enourmous prick. What’s worse is that the entire final part of the movie hinges on this, and making Amy look like the villain again by her wanting to save her job and smoking because he’s putting all this shit on her. I really hate this scene, and it goes to show that the movie goes out of its way to make Amy look like the bad guy while also making her ‘relatable’. And don’t get me wrong, she’s not a very nice person (I could go into how shitty she is to her sister, but it’s not completely related to this topic), but she has no fucking reason to be seen as in the wrong here.

I just tore into the guy, so here's a nice shot of the two of them in the
film to offset that. Though, still, eat a dick, Hader.
With all that, here’s my final point against this film having a feminist bent:

5.    Amy has no agency

I mean, yeah. Agency. Having it is, like, in the rules of feminism.

And this is really my biggest point, and it’s a culmination of everything above. Nothing is Amy’s 
fault, but also nothing is done because she seems to really want it. Her ‘Trainwreck’ behaviour is on her dad. The depth of her relationship with John Cena is decided by John Cena. Her needing to settle down and calm down is decided by her sister and friends. Her relationship with Hader is decided on Hader’s grounds. Hell, despite him also being in the wrong about what happened with their breakup, SHE had to apologise by appeasing him by doing something to win over his favours. Hell, she was even forced to write the piece that causes them to meet in the first place!

I know I complained a lot about her father, but at least he was okay with her making her own choices in life (that comment about her relationship aside). It’s just a movie where she’s led around for nearly the entire thing by actions and motivations decided by other characters, which makes her final decision to grow up and seriously take a chance with Hader fall so flat.

Trainwreck is a movie about a woman who does what she wants, other people’s opinions be damned, but then decides to try a more mature and serious path in life due of other people’s decisions. All because this film needs to fit into a tired Hollywood formula. Fan-fucking-tastic.


Before I go into my final thoughts, I want to give a shout out to a certain number of films I consider to have strong feminist leanings, or at least do what this film was trying and does it better (in my humble opinion, of course):

-Smiley Face: Gregg Araki’s stoner comedy starring Anna Faris. Not only does it gender flip the ‘stoner’ who usually stars in comedy like these (her gender is pretty incidental, too), but she also gets into shit for her weed smoking, but the movie tends to blame her for being a complete moron instead of her drug taking itself. Hilarious comedy of errors well worth the watch.

There is also not one unhilarious shot of Anna Faris in this flick
-Sisters: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect). Also somewhat about stunted adults forced to grow up, both have clear agency and fleshed out motivations, also they are more culpable for their actions and are not as unfairly looked down. Not perfect, but a similar comedy in the vain of Trainwreck. It even has John Cena in it!

-Diary of a Teenage Girl: Provocative semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a teenager growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s. Shows the protagonist maturing and learning about her negative choices in a concise and respectable way, though much darker than the other two suggestions due to the subject matter, so those who do not enjoy that kind of material may want to skip it.

In conclusion, this film may have been labelled as ‘feminist’ too quickly, when I don’t think it really meant to be taken in that regard. Same as the Ghostbusters movie, but at least Trainwreck isn’t being judged as the ruination of cinema because of these elements.

To Amy Schumer, in the grand unlikelihood that you are reading this, no hard feelings. Despite all this, I really do think she is a gifted comedian, just that this film was a bust overall, with questionable morals while appropriating gender normative bullshit by sticking to a drab and predictable Hollywood formula. Despite this, people seemed to see it as progressive. I have no idea if the creative team intended it to be seen in terms of being groundbreaking gender norms-busting stuff, I just don’t see why this film was labelled like it was.

And while I clearly didn’t like this movie, this is by no means an indictment to those who do like it. If you found something empowering and relatable in it, than great, more power to you. I just don’t think it goes against the grain like people think it does, and it doesn’t help us level out a playing field where women are treated as being equally as stoned up and freely promiscuous as men are in our dumb comedies, and more importantly nothing is really thought of it. Hopefully, we’ll achieve that dream together.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna watch the 12 Angry Men sketch again.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Quick Critique: Fire at Sea

Fire at Sea is a fascinating documentary that won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The Italian documentary is a commentary-less look at Lampedusa, a Sicilian island that routinely gets an influx of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean due to its proximity to Italy. Intercutting footage of people being rescued (and not) from the dangerous excursions are several residents of the island, the main focus being a local boy from a family of fishers.

While the film’s main intent is to highlight the dangerous and unacceptable travels of migrants and refugees and the massive loss of life it entails, what really works about this film is the completely objective way it is shot. There’s no commentary, no real manipulation of the scenes, it just shows these people’s lives and how they are affected by the oncoming crisis. The purpose of the young boy, who gets the most screentime devoted to, is probably the most subtle, as he goes about his life and interest seemingly unaware of what a horrific ordeal is happening right outside his doorstep.

The framing of the conflict is deliberate and controlled, starting off with the true horrors of what’s happening more told offscreen via rather chilling radio call near the beginning or the local doctor’s harrowing accounts of treating and examining the bodies of children burned with chemicals and dead pregnant women. Rather than letting the audience off easy, the final 20 minutes are a harrowing display of the reality these people face, only breaking away for the last few minutes.

The only real negatives I can think of are to do with pacing and intent. While the cinematography is stunning and beautifully framed to get your attention and interest, the film can feel really languid and meandering in certain parts. Also, while I can sort of understand why the focus is more on the local child, it can get a little lost sometimes wondering how this ties into the more globally significant narrative of the refugee crisis.

Really, if this review is too short, don’t take it as an indication that there isn’t a lot going on in it. Fire at Sea is something that needs to be experienced for itself. It’s an emotive and thoughtful documentary that takes you on a journey while also making you think about the horrific reality that we live in.

What's so charming about our ‘lead’ is that he’s so wide-eyed and naïve: he faces the same problems that every kid his age faces. He gets eye patches, he loves guns and his slingshot, he wants to be a fisherman like his father but can’t handle the waves, etc.  He’s granted the luxury of being ignorant to the devastation and ensuing crisis that only grows worse as time goes on. We should not be.