Welcome to Auteuse Theory


Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…


Monday, 13 July 2015

Artisan animation with a social agenda: 1970s children’s television in Finland


NINA MICKWITZ


 

 



In October 2014 issue 3 of the Finnish, but Swedish language[i], publication Film Journalen allocated a substantial amount of space to animation and to women creators. Considering its international distribution and profile, it is hardly surprising that the cover should have featured two of the main characters from the 2014 Finnish-French co-production Moomins in the Riviera, the Snork Maiden and Moomintroll himself. The Moomins have grown to become one of Finland’s most successful cultural exports and their creator, Tove Jansson (1914-2001), assumed the status of a beloved national institution already in her life-time. However, while the article about the Moomin film is given a double page spread, a far more substantial portion of the journal is given to retrospective appraisals of domestic animation occasioned by 2014 as the centenary year of the animated film. Particular attention is given to a group of female freelance creators who during the 1970s brought about something of a golden age of home-grown animation within the Swedish-language children’s programming at the public broadcaster Yleisradio (translates roughly as ‘Public Radio’), or YLE. There is an essay running through fifty years of Swedish language children’s animation (Uggledahl 2014: 14-18), an article by Antonia Ringbom (2014: 20-25) based on transcripts from her documentary and a shorter piece by Johanna Minkkinen (2014: 36-37) about the 2014 release of a compilation DVD of animated shorts by Camilla Mickwitz as a cultural heritage undertaking by the Finland Swedish Film Centre. Before proceeding I should declare that Camilla Mickwitz (1937-1989), one of the key figures in Finnish children’s animation of this era, was my mother.  This means that my understanding of the topic, although grounded in research, also draws on memory and my position as an ‘inside observer’ (albeit a very young one) at the time in question. This piece is not intended to amount to a personal tribute, but it would be churlish not to include some personal recollection, as and when appropriate.

Hailed as significant and innovative contributors to Finland’s animation history by the Film Journalen issue and also a (somewhat patronisingly titled) television documentary, Berits stall – tjejmaffian/ Berit’s stable – the girl mafia (Pii Berg and Antonia Ringbom 2014), aired on YLE5 on the 10th of October 2014, Christina Andersson, Kati Bondstam, Ia Falck, Estelle Rosenlew, Antonia Ringbom and Camilla Mickwitz all worked with the children’s television producer and programmer Berit Neumann between 1968 and the mid-70s. This is a segment of women’s film history that offers multiple facets worthy of attention: gender and hierarchies of value in relation to children’s television; creative industries themes’ such as freelance and project based work, industry awards as determinants of quality (Connolly, Hanretty, Hargreaves Heap and Street 2015); barriers to the transnational flows of media in terms of language, and codes of representation. While dealing with each of these considerations in depth is beyond the scope here, I will aim to introduce some examples of content, as well as indicatively consider some contextual factors, in order to situate this fragment of Finnish animation and women’s film-making history. But the relative obscurity of this topic, and its cultural context, prompts me to first outline something of a background sketch.

There is a tendency to summarise Finland’s international profile by tentative listing of a handful of sports stars, design brands and latterly the mobile technology giant Nokia.  The country’s marginal position, culturally speaking, seems underlined geographically. Beyond a long land-border with Russia, it is set apart from surrounding countries by the Baltic Sea. Speeded-up connections by air travel have not managed to render this geographical circumstance any less psychologically potent; I grew up in the capital of Finland with a nagging sense of being incurably tucked away in a peripheral and parochial European region. It is perhaps unsurprising that, much later on, reading theoretical postulations about centre-margins dichotomies had immediate and experiential resonance.

A relatively young nation, Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian, and despite occupying a relatively large expanse of space, it has a small population and a (first) language that shares little in common with most other European languages. Historically, Finland in the post WW2 period has also held a somewhat singular position. Despite a being a European free market economy and having a fraught historical and political past with its larger, more powerful neighbour, the country maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist states in terms of trade, but significantly also cultural links and exchanges. Why is this relevant here? Looking at the animation that flourished in Finnish children’s television in the 1970s it is possible to discern a fusion of influences of 1950s American limited animation, its aesthetics and principles, and the stop motion techniques and artisan production model of Eastern European animation.

Used by animation pioneers such as Winsor McKay and Earl Hurd (who sought to patent the process in 1914), Walt Disney is most commonly seen as the trail blazer and dominant figure in the history of cel animation. Cel animation involves creating the impression of movement by overlaying static and painted backgrounds with transparent celluloid acetate sheets, on which the figures and their movements are traced. In a report on Finnish animation published by the Finnish Film Foundation, Juho Gartz (1975) makes quite clear how despite the awe inspired by the technical superiority of Disney’s productions, home grown production was galvanised more radically by the (later) example set by UPA’s adoption of more financially feasible practices of limited animation. Meanwhile, possibilities of stop motion animation were vigorously explored in Eastern Europe, in particular in the, then, Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Stop motion animation creates movement through the physical movement of elements in between shots in order to effect the illusion of continuous movement once projected at a range of typically 12-24 frames per second. Time consuming and painstaking as this is, it is still less labour intensive than Disney-style cel animation. It does not, therefore, inherently necessitate an extensive work-force, especially if the goal is not a feature length film. While this technique also had proponents in the US and elsewhere, stop motion animation and puppet animation has a rich tradition in Eastern Europe. Famous names include the Soviet film maker Aleksandr Ptushko and the Czech Ladislas Starewitch.  John Halas and Roger Manwell (1969: 236) have accredited the proliferation of puppet animation here to longer standing folk traditions involving carved dolls. However, it would be wrong to discount the role of state subsidised cultural production of the socialist Eastern Bloc, which offered a platform for individuals and small production teams to explore the medium without the immediate pressure of sustaining profitable box office returns. This most certainly contributed to the emergence of influential post- WW2 creators such as Jan Šwankmajer and Jiří Trnka, the latter’s expression of political dissent in Ruka/The Hand (1965) notwithstanding.

State sponsored cultural production in Finland should by no means be directly compared to that of the structures both enabling and constraining the arts in Soviet era Eastern European countries. But, the 1970s in particular saw a pro-active arts policy in several parts of Northern Europe (Toepler and Zimmer: 32). Arts funding in part worked to support social democratic goals of equality and access for consumers, but also took the form of subsidies and grants schemes for small groups and individuals. Especially in comparatively small and young nations such as Finland, funding of artists and cultural producers by means of grants can be seen as an expression of the wider logic that informed Nordic cultural policy from the beginning of the 1960s up until the mid-70s; a protective measure against the perceived threat of commercial interests and a way of ‘strengthening national identities through cultural policy’ (Duelund 2008: 13).  According to this understanding public funding of artistic production, including the projects of individual and artisan cultural producers, works to protect authenticity, innovation and quality. The idea that the good of the nation is in need of such safe-guarding is informed by a view of the cultural industries that has since been debunked for its paternalistic attitude towards ‘the public’, and criticised for the dichotomy it constructs between commerce and notions of value. And yet, despite a rather comprehensive theoretical fall from grace and further erosion by the general political drift towards neoliberal and market-led positions, this period of cultural policy produced some interesting results.  And while the media and critical attention to this period in Finnish animation history has largely focused on creator personas, the creative industries perspective is found simmering not too far under the surface. But more on this later.

Camilla Mickwitz, having trained as a graphic artist and worked commercially as an illustrator, began her forays into animation under the wing of Berit Neumann, and tutelage of Aarre Aalto who ran the YLE special effects studio (Ringbom 2014: 22) in the late 1960s. At this point, no formal animation education was yet in place in Finland, and home-grown Finnish animation was most prominently featured in advertising, or as short segments in live-action programming. Juho Gartz (1975) has traced historical connections to comic book publishing and illustration, as well as the influential year-long stay in Helsinki in 1960-61 by Robert Balser, later famed for his contribution to the Beatles film Yellow Submarine (1968) and television series Jackson Five (1971-72).

Although the animation of Mickwitz and her contemporaries is far from characterised by technical sophistication (Gartz 1975: 110; Uggeldahl 2014:15), it did achieve significant critical acclaim. In fact, technical naiveté to some extent worked to underline prestige, by defining this group’s work against the slickness, high production values of large-scale production and ‘mass culture’ status of popular imports (read Disney). In other words, the work by this group of animators presented an exemplary fit with the cultural policy of the time. A far more sympathetic fit, supported by established cultural exchange programmes between Finland and socialist Eastern Bloc states, was found with the Eastern European craft orientated aesthetic. However, instead of puppet animation, early Finnish animation was more often a form of simple 2D stop motion: using cut-out pieces of paper and making drawings ‘come alive’ by applying basic principles of animation. This technique is, in fact, also known as cut-out animation. Many of the creators in question made children’s books as well as animated films, also in keeping with the Eastern European model. Seemingly driven in equal measure by the emphasis on a singular creative vision that characterises a field of restricted cultural production (Bourdieu 1993) and a social agenda, this was work asserting claims for children’s culture to be taken seriously.  Because access to these short films is limited, and translation issues (cultural as well as linguistic) further complicate their circulation, I feel that some examples of some of the stories and the characters inhabiting these depicted worlds is needed. It will hopefully help explain the general outlook of this particular crop of children’s animation.

Christina Andersson’s (1936-) very earliest film Tugsummarpojken/The Thumbsucking Boy includes a negotiation between son and father along the lines of ‘you quit smoking cigarettes, and I will stop sucking my thumb’ (Ringbom 2014: 22-23), Mats och hans Föräldrar/Mats and his Parents (1971) grappled with divorce and Jakob Dunderskägg/Jacob Thunderbeard (1979) featured as its central character a distinctly un-conventional child minder. As far from the prim and proper Mary Poppins as imaginable, Jakob, a gruff and unkempt pirate captain, showed that values beyond appearances and conventions ultimately win the day. But perhaps more significantly, especially when considering that he made his appearance more than twenty-five years ago, Andersson’s Jakob challenged gender assumptions in relation to child care. Some years later, taking a broader view and more heavy-handed approach, Anima och Monstret ‘Destruktor’/ Anima and the Monster ‘Destructor’ (1985) by Antonia Ringbom addressed threats to the environment from nuclear power and the excesses of disposable consumer culture. At fifty minutes this was a comparatively long film, and thus ambitious in terms of technical scope as well as its themes.

 

With a decidedly more upbeat quality characterising her body of work, Camilla Mickwitz went on to publish more than twenty children’s books and write and produce almost as many animated shorts. She also created the logo and ident for the children’s television channel ‘Pikku Kakkonen’ (‘Little Two’), which is currently still in use, and animated a long-running public information film about the dangers of playing on thin ice. Her very first animation, to the soundtrack of ‘The Mice’s Christmas Eve’ (which is a well-known by Norwegian songwriter Alf Prøysen), was aired on YLE’s fledgling Swedish language children’s programme slot in 1968. From there Mickwitz soon moved on to a more authorial approach; writing, drawing, directing and eventually also producing her own films. In order of appearance, her most well-known characters are a small boy called Jason, Emilia (who tells stories with her father, Oskar), and an anarchic little witch, Mimosa, who travels by broom-stick and generally takes it upon herself to be an instigator of disorder. All appeared in several short animations as well as books. The first film introducing Jason (1971) was no more than 5-6 minutes long. The film opens by showing the simply drawn shape of a tower block as the voice-over explains: ‘many people live in this house, big people and little people’.

 

                              

 

 

Jason himself is first seen being pulled by the hand by his mother at such speed that he seemingly flies in her wake; she can’t be late for work and must drop Jason off at the child minder beforehand. Jason’s mother works on the production line in a factory, but earns extra cash as a life-drawing model for evening classes at the art school. In a provocative move, Mickwitz shows her posing between easels, a thought bubble revealing that she’s thinking about the new winter coat she wants to buy for Jason with her wages. The story details aspects of the everyday life this small family unit: watching television together, Jason playing with his friends and baking at the child-minder’s flat, a trip to the hair- dresser’s and the treat of an ice-cream cone bought from a small kiosk. But despite its hum-drum social realism the approach is far from down-beat.

 

As unsentimental as it is visually rich, this is a vibrant colour-world conjured by crayons and water soluble pencils and characterised by an assured graphic style and sensibility. The single parent family is represented but never explained, commented or elaborated on. In the later, and at 13 minutes slightly longer, Jason’s Summer (1973), Jason and his mother escape the dust and grime of the big city to stay in a rural guest house run by an elderly lady. Here Jason watches the various guests who all holiday in the villa while observing strict social protocols not to invade each other’s personal space. He eventually decides that this is a predictable and dull state of affairs, and by pushing all the small tables in the dining room together forces everybody to get to know each other.

  

Sharing, intergenerational relationships and the foibles and (ultimately redeemable) shortcomings of adults are recurring themes in Mickwitz’ work. In another Jason story, Angry Agnes, the bad-tempered neighbour who complains about noise on the landing, has an unexpected change of heart. When tooth-ache causes Agnes to swaddle her head in a thick shawl, she finds the isolation of complete silence disconcerting. This helps her realise that rather than just aggravating noise, sounds of other people in the building are in fact reassuring signs that she is not all alone. The Emilia stories tackle a variety of topics: sea pollution (Emilia and The Twins); totalitarianism and simultaneously the power relations between big people and small people (Emilia and King Oscar); elderly ladies reclaiming a sense of purpose as they interact with neighbourhood children (Emilia and Three Little Old Ladies); and not least, the story about the small boy who, despite wishing for a doll to dress and bathe and play with, only ever receives toy cars and trucks on birthdays and Christmases (Emilia and the Doll).                    

 

Presumably as a result of his thwarted childhood desires, when as an adult this protagonist meets a girl who looks exactly like a doll, he finds her irresistible and they soon move in together. But Nora (with a none-too-subtle nod to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen) eventually outgrows the doll’s house he has built for her and she leaves. The story ends by a conciliation on a park bench, as Nora (in a more fresh-faced and less frilly incarnation) and her newly re-constructed man agree that real persons are not objects to be owned. Perhaps a tad clunky, but as a politically engaged film aimed for child audiences, it also seems remarkably ahead of its time. Presenting a clear and radical counterpoint to the gender politics associated with Disney princess films, this contribution in fact significantly pre-dates the majority of them, with the exception of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). So evidently, stylistic markers and production models are not the only aspects worthy of consideration. I think it is true to say that the public funding model and cultural policy that contributed to this work’s emergence, in effect, reproduces the ‘charismatic ideology’ (Bourdieu 1996/1992: 167, cited by Hesmondhalgh 2006: 212) and consecrates of the individual creator. At the same time, it enabled the production and circulation of perspectives and values not necessarily made available in dominant market-led cultural production, producing added breadth in terms of resources for the construction of subjectivities and identities. The observational humour and determined social engagement that characterises this work is no less pronounced than the deliberately hand-crafted aesthetic.

Within the relatively small-scale national context of these films, their profile as domestically produced and pioneering products was further bolstered by critical attention in the form of awards. Prizes and awards are important mechanisms for attributing value by means of industry/peer recognition (Hanretty, Connolly, Street and Hargreaves-Heap 2015: 268). And as in any kind of award and grants economy, also familiar in academic contexts, having proven ability to attract funding significantly adds weight to future proposals. It is therefore a crucial consideration. International film festivals, and especially animation festivals such as the ones held in Bratislava and Annecy were not just networking opportunities. Recognition abroad reverberated back home with considerable effect. Andersson was awarded a prize from the Prix Jeunesse Foundation in Munich in 1972, which was followed by several domestic awards. Mickwitz also has a considerable list of Finnish prizes and accolades. Among others, she was awarded the Finnish State Award for Children’s Literature in 1973, and again in 1976 and 1986, followed by the State Award for Children’s Culture a year later. However, most commentaries on her career focus their attention on a prize given at the Hollywood International Television Awards in 1974. Despite its grand name, this was in fact a small and local industry festival that did not achieve the longevity of some of its competitors, and has since disappeared without trace from festival listing and archives. It is likely that the film was originally submitted by YLE as part of a promotional drive; exposure aimed to drum up interest from overseas networks. When the film was selected for special commendation, this recognition of a Finnish animator (with the instant glamour of the Hollywood name and kudos of the ‘International’ in its title) was picked up by the main national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. This in turn ignited interest from a slew of women’s magazines. This short-lived, but nonetheless potently frothy flurry of attention helped cement the idea of Mickwitz as a figure of note on the Finnish cultural scene. The chimera of ‘the Hollywood prize’ still lingers seductively and has become a staple in narratives surrounding Mickwitz’ contribution to Finnish animation and children’s culture.

Confirmations of international recognition are thus an important element in this particularly fertile and productive period in the history of Finnish animation. But despite such industry acknowledgements, and despite being showcased at larger European trade-fairs, most of these animated shorts were taken up and bought mainly by other Nordic broadcasters. It would seem that single parent families, artist’s models and the revolutionary overthrow of authoritarian patriarchs was deemed inappropriate content for children’s television further afield. Granted, this was several decades ago.  

                                           
 

But although topics such as marine pollution (Emilia och Tvillingarna/ Emilia and The Twins) would be unlikely to raise objections today, I struggle to imagine Jason’s mother’s evening job depicted on our screens even now. This display of asexual nudity (a concept that seems utterly incomprehensible beyond a Nordic setting), especially in the context of children’s programming, would surely cause extreme reactions.

Time to return to issues of production. This particular interlude of Finland’s public broadcasting corporation YLE, and in particular its Swedish language children’s television, as a showcase and conduit for artisan animation came to an end in 1975 due to a pay dispute. The work produced by this group of creators was on a freelance basis, and considering the labour intensive processes involved, it is perhaps unsurprising that the lack of contracts and conditions of pay eventually brought about this eventual collapse. Ia Falck (Ringbom 2014: 23) recollects limited understanding of the time scale involved in animation on the part of YLE’s finance department and studio booking system. Moreover, the conditions under which much of this work was produced, gave YLE the complete copyright to all of the films. Hence none of them have been released on video, or DVD[ii]. Antonia Ringbom (ibid: 25) explains how the women animators decided to join the union for freelance programme employees (FOT), which organised editors, graphic artists and others who were mainly employees of YLE, but working to fixed-term and project-based contracts. 1975 saw the first round of strike actions, and an organised boycott meant no more animation would be produced for the corporation. For some of the women who had collaborated with Neumann’s children’s TV department, these development prompted new directions and a move into other forms of production. But for Mickwitz this did not spell the end. She continued to build on a body of work that has come to, for some, earn her the moniker ‘the godmother of cut-out animation’ (Fransberg 1994:81, cited by Uggeldahl 2014: 16). From 1976 to her pre-mature death from an aneurism in 1989, Mickwitz created a large number of films with the independent production company Epidem. Having an established reputation no doubt facilitated further production grants from the Finnish Film Foundation, and YLE now had to pay fees when broadcasting her films.  

There are complex dynamics of cultural value at work in this narrative, and the uneven relations outlined above, between the symbolic sway of awards and accolades and the power struggles between institutional structures and producers working under untenable economic conditions and terms of employment is one such tension.  Another is the status of children’s media and culture in relation to cultural fare aimed for adults. According to a purely (simplistic) economic analysis it is logical that attention and effort should be concentrated on producing cultural goods with appeal to the parts of the population with the most disposable income. But such an instrumentalist view only gives a partial account, and there are other factors to consider, as well as the consequences. Viewing children’s culture as being of lesser consequence clearly has implications for producers of children’s culture, and the conditions under which they produce their work. Children have also notably been deemed a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to the damaging ‘effects’ of media products, and therefore in need of protection by codes and censorship. Connected to this, yet a quite separate, if equally thorny issue is the idea of ‘childhood innocence’ as a quality in need of safe-guarding. Cultural constructions of childhood present complicated debates, and would quickly take me beyond the scope of this contribution. But power relations between adults and children was a noticeable concern in much of this glut of early 1970s Finnish animation, as was the refusal to patronise young viewers by preconceived notions of what kind of content is suitable for them. I would suggest that a key characteristic of these films is that the children depicted in the films, as well as the audiences the films are created for and addressed to, are fundamentally conceived as actors with social and political agency.

And last, but certainly not least, it is unlikely to be mere coincidence that all of the animators in this group are women. In a patriarchal social structure the nurture of, in particular young and pre-school, children is a traditionally female domain, and the gendered allocation of professional roles some forty years ago would have been more normative than  might be the case today. Some of the attitudes by which these producers were met in the institutional contexts in which they initially developed their story-telling techniques would have been coloured by condescension both on the grounds that they were making work for children and that they were women. But the 1970s also included lively and loud challenges to the status quo, as exemplified by feminist and environmental movements. And the work by the women creators of this particular time and place is undeniably suffused by such a zeitgeist. Ringbom (2014: 25) points out the revolutionary spirit of 1968 as a profound influence for their generation, stating that ‘we wanted to impact the future, the whole world, through children’ (my translation), no less. With hindsight such earnestness might seem gauche. Yet the ambition exuding from the work of these women animators is difficult to deny, as it covers both textual content and the instigation of new working practices within the existing institutional frameworks.

Perhaps the best way to sum up will be by conjuring from personal memory. High/low culture and avant-garde/mass trash distinctions were never in question in my childhood home, nor was the privileging of individual creative genius. Mediocrity and petit-bourgeois convention were dispatched with disdain in accordance with the worst snobbishness of bohemian traditions. At the same time, and somehow unencumbered by the inherent paradox, the robustly socio-political agenda of my mother and her colleagues is testament to a progressive politics of change, equality and social responsibility.

My aim in writing this piece has been to insert what I consider a simultaneously vibrant and contradictory historical fragment into a broader transnational context of women’s film heritage and animation history. Going back to my earlier comments about centres and margins, I feel this history deserves some form of presence and connection beyond the northern shores of the Baltic Sea.

 

Sources

 
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.
 

Duelund, Peter. 2008. ‘Nordic Cultural Policies: a critical view’, International Journal of Cultural Policy 14 (1): 7–24.

 
Gartz, Juho. 1975. Elävöitettyjä Kuvia: raportti suomalaisesta animaatioelokuvasta/Animated Pictures: a report on Finnish animated film. Helsinki: Finnish Film Foundation.
 

Halas, John and Roger Manwell. 1969.  The Technique of Film Animation. London: Focal Press.
 

Hanretty, Chris, Sara Connolly, John Street, and Shaun Hargreaves-Heap. 2015. ‘What makes for prize-winning television?’ European Journal of Communication 30 (3): 267 –284.

 

Hesmondhalgh, Devid. 2006. ‘Bourdieu, the Media and Cultural Production.’ Media, Culture & Society 28 (2): 211–23.

 

Minkkinen, Johanna. 2014. ‘Film Centrum Vill Bevara den Finlandssvenska kulturskatten’/ ‘Film Centre Wants to Restore a Cultural Treasure’, Film Journalen 3: 36-37.

Ringbom, Antonia. 2014. ‘Den Animerade Tjejmaffian’/’The Animated Girl Mafia.’ Film Journalen 3: 20-25.

Toepler, Stefan and Annette Zimmer. 2002. ‘Subsidizing the Arts: art and government in Western Europe and The United States’. In Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization, edited by Diana Crane, Nobuko Kawashima and Kenichi Kawasaki, 29-48. Hove: Psychology Press.

Uggeldahl, Krister. 2014. ‘Teckna, Klippa, Knåpa, Plåta: Femtio år av Finlandssvenk barnkammaranimation’/ ‘Draw, Cut, Craft, Shoot: Fifty Years of Swedish Language Kids’ Animation in Finland.’ Film Journalen 3: 14-18.




 

Camilla Mickwitz Filmography:

1968 Hiirten jouluaatto/ The Mice’s Christmas Eve
1969-1971 Max ja Murre/Max and Murre
1971 Pikku Kanin hassu päivä/ Small Rabbit’s Funny Day (with Kati Bondestam)
1972 Sormus/The Ring
1972 Jason
1973 Jason ja Frans/ Jason and Frank
1973 Jasonin kesä/Jason’s Summer
1974 Jason ja vihainen Viivi/ Jason and Angry Agnes
1976 Ollaan yhdessä/ We’re Together
1976-1979 The Emilia series:

Emilia ja omenapuumetsä/ Emilia and the Orchard, Emilia ja Kolme Pikkuista Tätiä/Emilia and Three Little Old Ladies, Emilia ja Kuningas Oskari/Emilia and King Oscar, Emilia ja Nukke/Emilia and the Doll, Emilia ja Onni/ Emilia and Happiness, Emilia ja Kaksoset/Emilia and the Twins.


1982 Mimosa
1985 ...Ja sinusta tulee pelle/ …And you get to be the clown
1987 Mimosan syntymäyö/ Mimosa’s Birthnight
1989 Pieni enkeli/ Little Angel




[i] Officially a bi-lingual country, Finland has a population of just under 5 and a half million, 5.5 % of which is Swedish speaking.
[ii] The recent publication of a dvd of Mickwitz’ work (2014) includes only her later output, produced with Epidem, which according to web pages in honour of the centenary of Finnish animation production, is the oldest Finnish production company specialising in animation.




Since completing doctoral study in the Department of Film, Television and Media at UEA in 2013, Nina Mickwitz has been working as a visiting lecturer and associate tutor at University of East Anglia, University of Hertfordshire and Anglia Ruskin University. Her monograph ‘Documentary Comics: graphic truth-telling in a skeptical age’ (Palgrave-US) is scheduled for publication in December 2015. Nina is one of the organisers of Transitions: New Directions in Comics Studies, an annual symposium at Birkbeck College, London. Current research interests include seriality and the symbolic construction of ‘Fortress Europe’ in European television drama.

  

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

‘Solide mais pas Solitaire’: Female Solidarity and Feminist Empowerment in Girlhood (Bande de Filles, Céline Sciamma, 2014)

DESPOINA MANTZIARI



Céline Sciamma’s latest film, introduced at the Cannes Film Festival 2014 during the Directors’ Fortnight, has become a worldwide sensation. After travelling the festival circuit (Toronto IFF 2014, Sundance FF 2015), it was finally released in UK cinemas in May 2015. Its contemporaneous release with Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) has had an ambiguous effect regarding its critical reception, as it has tempted most critics to somehow compare the two. Sue Harris in her review noted the differences between the two, describing it as “much more defiant and unsettling than Richard Linklater’s subtle meditation on middle class American suburban boyhood”[1]. Mark Kermode has gone further in finding visual and thematic kinship between Girlhood and the British films Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and its sequel Adulthood (Noel Clarke, 2008)[2]. And of course, its generic predecessor, La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), has been frequently conjured up in discussing the film’s contribution to the French cycle of realist banlieue cinema. However, it seems more tempting to consider this film alongside Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, for its focus on the underrepresented and marginal social group of working class adolescent women. The portrayal of the stifling environment these young women are growing up in, and the difficulties they have to face in order to fulfill their desire to transcend these barriers that time and again are raised in front of them in their journey towards adulthood, is the strongest point of comparison, which are lacking in the rest of the films other critics have referred to. Both girls, Mia and Marieme, are strong and solitary[3] in their struggle to adapt and survive in a world that is fundamentally hostile to them.

 

And yet, the comparison to Boyhood may seem inevitable due to the choice of the English title Girlhood. The film’s original title Bande de Filles would be more accurately translated as Girl Gang. In her review, Harris comments: “[t]his cookie-cutter title, while great for distribution, does a great disservice to [the] film”. Initially this may seem like a just comment, but one could argue that this choice is actually a stronger statement, challenging mainstream assumptions concerning the semantic category that the word girlhood triggers. It is too often that we get this type of over-generalised title – and Boyhood is a case in point – to refer to an unmarked minority in society, i.e. white and middle class. Films like The Women (Diane English, 2008) and the Sex and the City franchise come to mind as examples of a multitude of screen products that unashamedly adopt these overarching titles to portray a very specific type of glamorized, Western, white, upper class femininity. And although the issues presented in them point to the wider social structure and the problems it presents [some] women with, one can only celebrate the ramifications of a different use of such an all-encompassing term. Therefore it can be argued that what sets this film apart from the films mentioned by other critics, is its feminist attitude in challenging pre-existing assumptions concerning young women of the social periphery.

 

A lot can be said about this film and the complex account it presents audiences with, concerning the inextricable link between gender, sexuality, race and social class in the constant negotiation for individual identity. The present review focuses on the manifestation of feminist authorship in terms of the representation of the empowering possibilities, as well as the vulnerability, of homosocial female bonding within a strongly patriarchal society. I will specifically address the main character’s need to belong and be accepted by society, which is the central factor impacting all her actions up until the very end, where the film insinuates that she is resolved to venture out on her own. The individual’s need for society has been observed as far back as Aristotle’s time, as well as women’s inferior position caused by legal subordination and poor education. Sciamma, through the depiction of Marieme’s struggle with the social role she is expected to perform as a black woman of the banlieue, produces a passionate social critique, which beautifully completes her trilogy of non-conformist coming-of-age femininity.

 

The film starts with the scene of a group of girls playing American football. The powerful physicality and the vociferous celebration of homosocial female bonding comes in stark contrast with the behavior of these young women outside the pitch, where they have to keep quiet and bow their heads in front of men. From the very first moments the film makes a statement concerning women’s strength as a collective and their vulnerability as individual entities within a patriarchal society. Marieme, facing hostility on all fronts (state represented by the school counsellor, family, and the hyper-masculine world of the banlieue), finds solace, even if temporary, in these all-female groups (e.g. her sisters and the girl gang she joins). And yet these relationships are constantly threatened by male intervention and are only ‘allowed’ as long as they reinforce the status quo. For instance, Marieme’s relationship with her younger sister, Bébé, reflects the solidarity as well as the delicacy and vulnerability of their bond. During a tender scene where they are alone in their room Marieme playfully teases Bébé about her budding breasts. They are laughing and shouting, but they immediately fall silent when they hear their older brother, Djibril, come out of his room. They wait until he leaves the flat to resume their chat, at which point they are both serious and Marieme asks her sister whether Djibril has noticed the change. She advises her to wear baggy T-shirts in order not to draw attention to the fact that she is growing up, which creates the impression that becoming a woman for them is dangerous, as it seems to accompany further restrictions and cruelty. They both seem terrified of Djibril and Marieme is systematically bullied and beaten by him.

 

This sisterly alliance within the domestic space mirrors the supportive bonds that are created amongst the members of the girl gang within the wider social structure of the banlieue. Marieme becomes acquainted with the girls – Lady, Fily and Adiatou – after she quits school, because she is not allowed to progress to general high school. Once stripped of this opportunity, and as a direct consequence of the state’s inability to support people from less privileged backgrounds, she joins the girl gang. Despite her initial reluctance she gets into a lifestyle of petty crime and violence (shoplifting, gang fights, etc.). However, the film does not adopt a judgmental attitude towards these gangs, showing that this disruptive behaviour is a result of their effort to create a little space within their restricting environment where they can forget their problems and enjoy each other’s company. When the girls are alone they can experience a sense of freedom, but they have to create alternate tough-girl personas (Sophie/Lady, Marieme/Vic) for their public encounters with other gangs. They have to constantly prove themselves to the boy gangs by literally fighting for social status against other girl gangs. Quite tellingly the only time Djibril acknowledges Marieme is after he finds out she has beaten another gang’s leader in a street fight.

 

Therefore it seems that male power is predicated on dissolving the supportive bonds between women, and Marieme once again hits a brick wall in her desire to develop as a person and transcend the boundaries that restrict her. After she has achieved Alpha female status in the group, Marieme sees her sister with her friends, bullying a younger girl and stealing her purse. She immediately heads to that direction, grabs her sister and commands her to go home. When Bébé talks back she does not hesitate to slap her hard in the face, at which point Bébé tells her that she is just like Djibril. Their solidarity comes near breaking point and it is a moment of realization for Marieme, who leaves the group and goes home with her sister. Not long after, once her secret relationship with Ismael is revealed, Djibril is once again violent and beats Marieme. This leads to her decision to leave the neighbourhood and she cuts off her ties with her sister and her friends. She meets Abou, who employs her as a drug trafficker, and although the girls try to dissuade her from leaving, Marieme sees no alternative and makes one more attempt to gain some kind of independence. Her visual transformation – dressing in high heels, a red mini dress and a blonde wig while at work and changing into loose trousers and baggy T-shirts after the deliveries – marks her effort to be perceived as one of the boys thus discouraging sexual attention from the men in her environment. However, Abou tries to force himself on her during a party, which results in her running away once again. It seems therefore that for a young woman in her position relationships with men (familial, romantic or professional) seem to only bring her trouble one way or another. Ismael is the only one who seems to genuinely love her and he offers to marry her in an effort to repair her reputation within their social circle. However, Marieme realises that by accepting his proposal she will have to settle for the life of a housewife and she expresses her desire for more than this life can offer. The film ends with Marieme alone crying, finding herself at an impasse and not wanting to return home. As the camera moves forward, she is left out of the frame her crying still audible. At the last minute, the sobbing stops, Marieme, looking strong and determined, moves in the centre of the frame from the right side and walks out of the frame on the left side. The open ending leaves a glimmer of hope that Marieme will keep on struggling for the improvement of her situation and the fulfillment of her innermost desire to find a viable place within society.

 

In her final installment to her coming-of-age trilogy, Sciamma delivers a beautifully crafted yet disturbing picture of the difficult transitions a woman has to face growing up in the Parisian banlieue. Even if Marieme is solid and solitary, the same cannot be said for the director, who is part of an increasing number of women directors who can rightfully claim the status of a feminist auteur within global art cinema. Without being patronizing she makes a film “with” black women instead of “about” them, as she herself has commented[4]. Sad and touching but not “misery-mongering”, as another critic has commented[5], it can serve as a strong social critique demonstrating the need for feminism in creating a fairer society not only to the usual middle-class art cinema audiences but to young black female audiences as well[6]. A celebration of female strength and resilience in the face of adversity, which crosses geographic boundaries, and provides a relatable experience for women who are facing similar restrictions the world over.



1 “Film of the Week: Girlhood,” Sue Harris, last updated May 11, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-girlhood
[2] “Girlhood review – electrifying portrait of a French girl in the hood,” Mark Kermode, last modified May 10, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/10/girlhood-gritty-teen-life-review-mark-kermode
[3] This phrase, “solide et solitaire”, is used by Abou, Marieme’s drug trafficking boss, when he meets her after she runs away from home.
[4] “The stars of Girlhood: ‘Our poster is all over Paris, with four black faces on it…’,” Jonathan Romney, last modified April 26, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/26/girlhood-film-karidja-toure-assa-sylla-celine-sciamma
[5] “Girlhood,” Sheila O’Malley, last modified January 30, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/girlhood-2015
[6] This intention was achieved by a series of screenings in multiplex cinemas outside the Périférique to target specifically young black women.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Tied Up In Knots: In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey



Richard McCulloch (Regent’s University London)
 

After several weeks of critical derision, rowdy cinemagoers, and one bizarrely controversial fancy-dress costume, Fifty Shades of Grey now appears to have stepped into an elevator and walked out of our lives; at least until the sequel. Many people, I’m sure, will be relieved to see the back of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’s phenomenally successful erotic novel, but I am not one of them. I saw the film the weekend it opened, and have been arguing about it with my students, friends and colleagues ever since. 

Yes, it is rife with contradictions. Its tone, for instance, appears playfully ironic one moment, deadly serious the next, while its gender politics seem to tread a peculiar line between misogyny and female empowerment. But it is precisely these contradictions that I think make the film so interesting and effective.  

I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema and left with such an overwhelming need to talk about what I had just experienced. I had absolutely no idea whether I had enjoyed myself or not, nor could I say how I felt about either of the protagonists, yet these ambiguities fascinated me.  

Having now watched it for a second time, what I want to do in this article is to address some of the prevailing complaints directed at it by professional critics, and offer up a defence of sorts. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but I think Fifty Shades is far more sophisticated than has so far been acknowledged, and it certainly deserves better than to simply be laughed at and discarded. What many people have dismissed as a trashy mess – a tame, vanilla porno with unrealistic characters – I see as an entirely self-conscious romance, whose only major ‘failing’ is that it does too good a job of aligning us with its protagonist.

 
CRITICISM #1: It’s not sexy enough

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Ana’s reaction to the sex is far more important than the sex itself

When they weren’t competing with each other to see who could come up with the best headline (‘Porn again, Christian,’ ‘Making a bad fist of it,’ etc.), most critics spent their reviews of Fifty Shades explaining how dull they found it. The bulk of this criticism, however, had little to do with pacing or the romantic drama at the centre of the plot, and instead focused on the film’s sex scenes. Reviews were littered with lines such as:

 

‘About as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn’ (Rolling Stone)

‘Porn for people who shop at Marks & Spencer’ (The Mirror)

‘Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed’ (USA Today)

‘Nobody in the film has visible genitals’ (Entertainment Weekly)

‘Anyone hoping the movie would really push the S&M envelope may find Christian’s tastefully shot toy room a little… vanilla’ (New York Daily News)

 

Clearly, critics not only wanted but also expected some kind of sexual ‘excess’, and became frustrated when the film apparently refused to give it to them (ahem). What these complaints demonstrate is a struggle over the film’s genre; Fifty Shades is implicitly being categorised as erotica/pornography above all else – sexually explicit material whose primary goal is to arouse its audience. One reviewer even went as far as calling it ‘the movie that promised to be the most titillating motion picture ever made.’

But where on earth has this generic expectation come from? It seems to me that this criticism has much more to do with the hype surrounding Fifty Shades (both novel and adaptation) than the movie itself.  

Its marketing campaign undoubtedly has a lot to answer for here, with posters and trailers continually teasing prospective audiences about Mr. Grey’s ‘very singular’ sexual predilections. Promotional materials often chose to hide parts of Christian (Jamie Dornan) from the audience, depicting him from behind, through enigmatic close ups, or with his face partially obscured (Figure 1).
 


- Figure 1. Fifty Shades of Grey poster (2015)

Similarly, trailers gestured towards steamy sexual encounters without really revealing very much. Perhaps, then, some critics took those gestures as ‘promises’ of what the film would surely deliver – the equivalent of a TV episode delaying viewers’ gratification by demanding they ‘tune in next week’ for narrative closure.  

I actually agree that the film is not especially risqué, but mainstream Hollywood has historically shown little interest in on-screen depictions of sexual dominance and submission. Why should we expect Fifty Shades to be any different?

While critics overwhelmingly bought into the idea that the film was trying and failing to be sexy, I would argue that those scenes were never intended to be focal points. Instead, they seem to function more as character identification devices than isolated moments of spectacle. In fact, there is ample evidence for this across various promotional materials. For instance, in spite of all the whips, restraining devices, and orgasmic writhing that the trailer fleetingly shows us, its clearest emphasis is on reaction shots of Ana (Dakota Johnson) (Figure 2).

 



- Figure 2. Reaction shots of Ana, as seen in the Fifty Shades of Grey official trailer
 

These shots position her as audience surrogate, and suggest that her response to (and curiosity towards) BDSM is far more important than the sex itself. Significantly, the first full-length trailer for the movie ended with Ana’s coquettish request for Christian to ‘enlighten’ her, while posters generally led with the tagline, ‘Curious?’ In one sense, then, the film adopts a strangely paradoxical attitude towards its own sexual content: BDSM is presented as both non-normative and a central selling point – elusive yet alluring. And crucially, this is just as true for Ana as it is for the mainstream viewer, both of whom experience the sex scenes as ‘educational’ rather than titillating. They might be fun, but ultimately they are just brief forays into implicitly unfamiliar territory.

CRITICISM #2: It’s sexist

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Christian is sexist, but the film is not 

At one point in the movie, Christian explains his fondness for dominance/submission by telling Ana, ‘By giving up control, I felt free. From responsibility. From making decisions. I felt safe. You will too, you’ll see.’ On first viewing, I read this as blatant ideological conservatism – a barely-concealed dismissal of feminism, empowerment and individual agency: Be a dear and stop dreaming of freedom – if you do everything I want you to do, we all win! Similar concerns were echoed in a large number of reviews and think pieces, with writers variously proclaiming ‘misogyny never looked so mesmerising,’ or arguing that the film ‘idealises male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy.’ 

My second viewing, however, made me realise that Fifty Shades’ ‘problematic’ moments are never actually presented as the ‘correct’ choice for Ana. Again, what many writers see as grounds for criticism, I see as psychological realism; Fifty Shades does such an effective job of aligning us with Ana’s emotions that we come out of it feeling just as conflicted, frustrated and unsatisfied as she does.
In the opening half-hour, for example, both Ana and the film are detached, cynical and playful, especially in their attitude towards Christian. When interviewing him near the beginning, she deviates from her roommate’s mostly deferential questions, calling him ‘lucky’ and a ‘control freak’. Importantly, her refusal to take Christian at face value is one of the things he seems to like most about her, as well as being one of the film’s central pleasures.


Ana also jokes that he would make ‘the complete serial killer,’ and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, drunkenly berates him for being ‘so bossy.’ Her subsequent impersonation of him undermines his hyper-masculinity (she adopts an exaggeratedly gruff voice) and his indecisiveness (‘Ana, let’s go for coffee! No! Stay away from me Ana, I don’t want you! Get away! Come here, come here! GO AWAY!’) Moreover, some of Christian’s most frequently-maligned lines of dialogue (‘If you were mine you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week’) are met with incredulity from Ana, who delivers a brilliantly deadpan ‘What?!’ on several occasions. Moments like these consistently construct Christian as a ridiculous, unbelievable character, whose desire to control Ana deserves to be laughed at or criticised, not celebrated.

It is no coincidence that the film’s detached, playful tone gradually disappears at the same time that Ana herself begins to take Christian more seriously. Their ensuing romance is characterised by an increasingly uncomfortable tension between their competing desires. Ana is clearly attracted to him and intrigued by the BDSM, but yearns for a fairly conventional romance that never fully arrives (‘Why do I have to sleep in [a different room]? We slept in the same bed last night, like normal people!’). Christian, on the other hand, only seems interested in their sexual relationship, and repeatedly shows that he is unwilling to cross the line into romance.  

Because the film encourages such tight identification with Ana, the failure of the couple’s relationship is placed entirely at the feet of Christian and his refusal to compromise on his own desires. The tension between the two characters is manifested in the battle between her desire for ‘conventional’ romance and his desire for ‘unconventional’ sex.

The contract they negotiate throughout the film is thus very much a tangible reminder of Christian’s inflexibility, yet along the way there are plenty of hints that perhaps he isn’t really as stubborn as he appears: he insists, ‘I don’t do the girlfriend thing,’ but then sends her first editions of a selection of novels by her favourite author; he refuses to touch Ana until he has her written consent, but then declares, ‘Fuck the paperwork,’ and kisses her passionately in the hotel elevator; the first time the couple have sex is extremely conventional – nothing non-normative, a nice clean bedroom, and far closer to Ana’s idea of perfection than to his; and he sleeps in the same bed as her twice in the opening 45 minutes, something he claims he ‘never’ does. 

In short, Christian seems to want Ana far more than he wants to stick to his own ‘rules’, which are held up as preposterous and antithetical to the film’s narrative. In order for the narrative to conclude as it ‘should’ (i.e. with the union of the final couple), it is him that needs to change, not her.  

Yes, siding with Ana means that we want her to end up in a happy relationship with a ridiculous, controlling man, but this is not the same as saying that Fifty Shades of Grey endorses an abusive relationship. On the contrary, like Ana, we find Christian’s domineering behaviour both laughable and impractical. The closer their relationship veers towards the dominance/submission that Christian desires, the less happy Ana is, and it is absolutely significant that her final words to him are ‘STOP!’ and ‘NO!’

CRITICISM #3: It’s unrealistic

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: The film is consciously exposing the gap between the ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ of romance

When reviewing a new release that also happens to be a widespread cultural phenomenon, it is easy enough to get swayed by the power of consensus. Reading several reviews in preparation for writing this blog, however, I was struck by how few critics seemed willing to take Fifty Shades seriously. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir’s review is typical in this regard, describing the film as…

‘A tale of two lovers exploring a relationship that takes in the wilder shores of bondage, submission, dominance and terrible dialogue. “Laters, baby!” cries hero Christian Grey, as he leaves his lover, Anastasia Steele […] “That was nice,” she says, after taking a bit of a thrashing from Grey. Nice? You’d think he just gave her a half-hearted peppermint foot rub.’


Philippa Hawker of the Sydney Morning Herald spoke in correspondingly negative terms, insisting that ‘no one can make the trademark phrase “laters, baby” sound anything other than ludicrous.’

It absolutely baffles me that anyone could criticise the film’s dialogue in this way, quite simply because it completely ignores the way in which the lines are delivered, and the context in which they appear. ‘Laters, baby’ is said first by Christian’s adopted brother to Ana’s roommate. When Christian then repeats it to Ana shortly afterwards, he does so with a knowing smirk on his face, highlighting its ‘corniness’ and turning it into an inside joke. In this moment, even Christian is capable of drawing attention to his own artificiality. Equally, the use of the word ‘nice’ to describe their sexual relationship is explicitly marked as incongruous by Christian, who says, ‘it’s been nice knowing me?! Let me remind you how nice it was!’

In a wonderful article for Slate, Amanda Hess goes as far as reading the film as ‘a kind of fan-fic of Fifty Shades the book.’ She argues that, between Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the source novel’s dialogue is laced with irony, which in turn makes its ‘bad’ qualities more palatable. While I am not entirely convinced that the film deems itself ‘superior’ to the book (fanfiction is not always resistant, for example), Hess persuasively demonstrates just how important tone is to understanding and appreciating the events on screen. Taylor-Johnson seems to want us to laugh at the silliness of love while simultaneously being swept up by it.

But Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it is doing, and is extremely self-conscious and upfront about just how fantastical its romance narrative is. The clearest example of this is when the couple spends the night together for the first time, following Ana’s drunken night out in a bar. She awakens to find painkillers and fruit juice at her bedside, along with notes reading ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’, respectively. These overt references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mark the couple’s relationship as dreamlike and fantastical from the start.

The movie’s soundtrack plays a central role in heightening this sense of fantasy, with lyrics often referring to escapist pleasures:

·         The opening montage unfolds over Annie Lennox’s cover of ‘I Put a Spell On You’, acknowledging romance’s potential to mislead and distort our perception of reality

·         Their first formal ‘date’, in which Christian whisks her away in his private helicopter, is accompanied by Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. She sings, ‘I’ll let you set the pace / ‘Cause I’m not thinking straight / My head spinning around I can’t see clear no more / What are you waiting for? / Love me like you do.’ These words explicitly draw attention to Ana’s state of mind and the astonishing (albeit pleasing) unreality of this as a romantic experience, while the final two lines hint at her willingness to buy into the fantasy that Christian represents

·         The other song at the centre of the film (and its marketing) is a slowed-down, sexed-up version of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’. Again, this is a song that, as its title implies, is very much about the potential for love to alter our sense of normality (‘Such a funny thing for me to try to explain / How I’m feeling and my pride is the one to blame / ‘Cause I know I don’t understand / Just how your love can do what no one else can’) 

If the film is signposting its own fantastical elements so consistently, there seems little value in dismissing its dialogue, characters, gender politics and/or sex scenes as ‘unrealistic’, let alone ‘harmful’. Taylor-Johnson’s goal is to not to see things objectively, but through Ana’s eyes, simultaneously finding Christian attractive and infuriating. The sex is an interesting distraction, but is certainly not the focal point of the film’s drama. By the half-way point, it is abundantly clear that Ana is less keen on an odyssey of sexual discovery than on a relatively ‘normal’ relationship. Her frustration and upset stems from her realisation that the relationship she yearns for is nothing but a fantasy, and impossible in practice.
 

CONCLUSION: Fifty Shades and women’s cinema

The reference point I keep coming back to in relation to all of this is Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Showgirls (1995). Roundly dismissed as trash? Check. Implausible characters, dialogue and acting? Check. Sexual content that ‘fails’ to titillate? Check. Yet Showgirls has enjoyed a modicum of critical re-evaluation since its release, with a growing number of people entertaining the idea that its ‘unpleasantness’ is actually intentional satire, not incompetence (Hunter, 2000; Mizuta Lippit et al., 2003; Nayman, 2014).

Also like Showgirls, Fifty Shades of Grey already has all the trappings of a stone cold cult classic – a chaotic production process (James and Taylor-Johnson argued extensively), critical derision, passionate fans, wildly divergent interpretations, and cultural notoriety. Yet the criticism surrounding the film has been so vehemently gendered that anyone who actually likes it has to either call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or keep schtum. It is significant that, when I first told my students how great I thought it was, the reaction was overwhelming laughter, followed by disbelief. It is also significant that I knew such a reaction was likely.

The idea that movies aimed at women are inherently less valuable than those aimed at men is as pervasive as it is ridiculous, making it difficult to avoid being taken in by the cultural narrative of critical haughtiness. Debates around both novel and film have, for example, been characterised by a sneering condemnation of female sexuality (particularly regarding older women and ‘mommy porn’), and accompanied by a succession of news stories about unruly women behaving hysterically. One widely-publicised report even described how a woman watching Fifty Shades in Milton Keynes literally lost control of all her bodily functions, causing the cinema to be evacuated.

Of course, when you read past the headlines, it becomes clear that this admittedly unfortunate incident had more to do with the lady in question being heavily drunk than the film she happened to be watching at the time. But it’s not a story if it’s reported like that, is it?

Like Christian Grey himself, critics have remained fixated on Fifty Shades’ sex while refusing to take its romance seriously. Pejorative references to Mills & Boon novels, daytime soap operas, and uncritical female audiences position the film as ‘lowbrow’, and romantic love stories as intrinsically worthless. Needless to say, there is a great deal of hypocrisy in criticising something for being anti-feminist while simultaneously deriding a genre traditionally associated with female audiences.  

Significantly for this website, Fifty Shades of Grey’s opening weekend in North America broke box office records for a female director. Not only that, but this cultural phenomenon has been built on a rare degree of female authorship. Between Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels on which E.L. James’s based her fanfiction and subsequent novel, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, Taylor-Johnson’s direction, and a widely-praised performance by Dakota Johnson, this is by some distance one of the most prominent examples of women’s cinema to come out of a major Hollywood studio in recent years.  

Irrespective of all the hype, critical backlash and commercial success, however, Fifty Shades is also a really sophisticated piece of filmmaking. I admit I went in expecting a load of trashy nonsense that I could laugh at. What I didn’t expect was a film that was in on the joke, but also smart enough to slowly reel me into the narrative without having realised it. I left the cinema despising Christian Grey but somehow also annoyed that he and Ana do not end up with each other, and it took me a good 24 hours of introspection and discussion with others before I managed to come to terms with that contradiction.

After Ana first meets the much-hyped but mysterious Christian, she tells her roommate, ‘He was very smart and intense […] I can understand the fascination.’ I’m saying the same about the film as a whole. If you stayed away because of the bad reviews, or if you saw it once and hated it, I urge you: cast aside your preconceptions and try again. I can’t promise you won’t end up like Ana – frustrated and yelling for it to stop – but find out for yourself what makes it tick rather than just believing all the rumours you’ve heard.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hunter, I.Q., ‘Beaver Las Vegas! A Fan-Boy’s Defence of Showgirls’. In Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper (eds.) Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000): 189-201.

Mizuta Lippit, Akira, et al., ‘Roundtable: Showgirls’, Film Quarterly, 56.3 (Spring 2003): 32-46;

Nayman, Adam, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014).