and the caldecott for “torture porn” goes to…

Plot summary: Crazed genius invites several young people into a labyrinth of his own making, in which all but one suffer terrible mutilations. The one who remains is recruited as his successor.

Is this a pitch for

(a) SAW III?
(b) CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY?

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“ave, imperator ozai! morituri te salutant!”

spoiler alert

I’m probably late to the party here, but I just discovered A:TLA Annotations and I’m having a TVTropes-like timesuck experience. Buried among the anatomy of the cartoon’s cultural references, though, is something that you might be interested in even if you don’t care about cartoon numismatics or the real-world referents of Fire Nation musical instruments—a take on the wildly ill-conceived A:TLA movie that never even came close to occurring to me. The relevant posts share a highly appropriate tag, so they’re easy to find. I won’t rehearse the argument in any great depth, but here are the bones:

Take a look at the movie. The Fire Nation is portrayed as technologically advanced and civilized and not just that, Shyamalan has more than once superimposed it with India (see the casting of all the Fire Nation, not just the main cast). He most certainly did not do that because he thinks they are the villains, quite the contrary, he seems to fanboy them a lot.

I reacted to the movie’s Fire Nation the way most people I know did: Of course the villains are the only non-whitewashed nation and they’re Indian, Shyamalan must have some weird self-hate complex and/or this was the only way he could get people of color in the movie at all. The idea that the movie is a product of a Fire Nation apologist engaging in cultural appropriation… well, it still sits oddly in the head. I think I’d have to watch the movie again, carefully, to evaluate Jin’s arguments properly, and I do not care to do that. But Jin appears to have watched the movie pretty carefully to develop her (?) arguments, and Jin has an impressive eye for visual detail. So I commend the f-you-shyamalan posts to anyone with an interest in the A:TLA mythos.

prolegomenon to “the american infant as manic pixie dream girl”

The title of this post presents a concept that I’ve been tossing around the last day or two. It feels like, if I’m going to bother at all, it ought to be in the context of a reasonably well-thought-out essay, rather than the off-the-cuff crap I usually post here. But, in tossing around the concept, I naturally consulted the repository of all human thought. Although the entry on “infants” contained no germane material, the entry on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reproduces an interesting interview with Zoe Kazan on the topic:

Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?

[Makes a face.]

What? What do you think of that term?

Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.

It is perhaps obvious that I use the term “interesting” euphemistically, mostly.

I mean, I’m in sympathy with the idea that seeing the world through TVTropes-colored glasses is not always a good thing. But the whole thing is such a shambles that you can sort of only begin at the beginning.

“Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie.”

Because the creator’s conscious motivations are the Rosetta Stone? Maybe you wrote her that way unintentionally. (Really, would anyone write a character that way intentionally?)

“That term is a term that was invented by a blogger…”

Objection: Relevance?

“… and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use.”

Right. Noticing a trend that organizes lots of art is a critical act, not a creative one. Is this a problem?

“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist.”

This (skipping merrily past the questionable use of “diminutive”) is the grammatical Necker cube that buys Kazan the appearance of an argument. It is correct inasmuch as the MPDG archetype is an instance or possibly a consequence of (presumptively usually unconscious) misogyny. This sentence is constructed, perhaps also unconsciously, to deflect that misogyny onto anyone who deploys the concept. It’s easy to see how this ramifies later on.

“I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality.”

Here she lets slip an understanding of the term’s actual etiology and use.

“But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing.”

Notice who’s being reduced. Not characters; people. Who are we talking about here?

“What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.”

The last sentence is plainly wrong; categorizing things doesn’t preclude acknowledging differences. But again we see it: “women” get described that way. It’s reflective of how a man thinks about “that girl,” not about who she “really” is. Kazan has taken a term explicitly defined to characterize some women in fiction and asserted that the term is pernicious because it diminishes women in reality. It goes bizarrely unacknowledged that anyone who thinks the MPDG archetype is useful would agree resoundingly that it doesn’t describe real people. The very reason to have a term for it is to make it easier to understand this particular, problematic way that fiction systematically deviates from reality.

I have no opinion about RUBY SPARKS, Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, or Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL; Kazan may be more than justified in defending her movie and those actresses. But it is nothing short of fascinating to me that Kazan both wrote and played the very character who occasioned this rodomontade—and, more amazingly, that character is literally a fictional character made real. It is patently crackers and yet nearly unquestionable that this whole torrent of denial and self-contradiction is secondary to Kazan’s conflation of herself with Ruby Sparks. When Sparks is attacked, she feels attacked; when Sparks is stereotyped, she feels stereotyped.

And where I’m trying to go with this is there seems something strangely universal about it, and I’m struggling to articulate what. It’s something like: We are all romantic leads in our own movies, prey to an audience prone to “misunderstanding.” Sometimes they point out that our characters are adhering to some script that is insultingly worn-out or simplistic, so much so as to have a derogatory name affixed by a group of bronies and tentacle-porn connoisseurs. We’re insulted by this, because sometimes people really act that way or it’s subversive or if you knew what I knew you’d understand. Because we’re up to our ears in the motivation we’ve worked out in our heads, and we’ve conflated it with the script we’re reading.

But the RL Trope is one back from the TV Trope, of course. RL Tropes create TV Tropes. This is critical. The RL Trope is thinking of women as vessels of a particular kind of pleasure and redemption; the TV Trope is the MPDG. It is sexist to apply the TV Trope to a real person; to apply the RL Trope to a real person is to accuse that person of sexism, which may or may not be justified but is not of itself sexist.

But if you can’t tell the RL Trope from the TV Trope, you might think it was.

So this is where I am, some wibbly-wobbly idea that people think (e.g.) acknowledging racism promotes racism because of this confusion between script and character, essence and extension, the fundamental attribution error, something. Some idea that you can’t see fiction that way unless you see real people that way; you wouldn’t perceive these correlations if you didn’t at some level endorse them.

Which actually might arise from a certain childlike trust in the provenance of fiction.

Or maybe it’s just a backfilling Yalie phoning it in. I don’t know, and I’m up too late. But it feels like there’s something here, still waiting.

on this hideous obsession with remakes

From Harlan Ellison’s 1966 review of Beau Geste (collected in HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING), a sentiment I share:

Stagecoach, She, Room for One More, Mutiny on the Bounty, Rashomon, and now Beau Geste: each of these was made the first time out as well as it could ever be made. Each has had a new edition released in the last few years and each one, without exception, has been an artistic disaster. The strangling stench of venality behind these remakes is so gagging that only the horse-blindered producers who have fostered them could hope to accept the hypocrisy of their being brought into being. And only these same men could hope to swallow the rationalizations used to ballyhoo weak excuses for their latest incarnations.

If the film industry does not stop this ceaseless, senseless cannibalization of its own body, it will disenchant the filmgoing audience beyond hope of recall. How much longer can audiences be expected to swallow the patent lies of four-color lithography and slanted Coming Attractions? How much longer can people be expected to invest their trust, their ticket money, their time and their sense of wonder in shabby redone warhorses butchered by second-rate visionaries? What dreadful ghouls imagine they can match the marvels wrought for us first time out by Kurosawa, Ford, Laughton, Gable, John Wayne or Thomas Mitchell? What front-office callousness can be deemed even remotely acceptable for the production of inferior versions of treasured classics held dear in memory by movie lovers; films whose discover by younger generations has been irrevocably lost or mutilated by the release of witless surrogates, merely for the money to be gained from a shameful resort to the reputation of the former version?

I am not a “cinemaphile” in the way Ellison is, although of course I like movies, and I actually see this problem as kin to the rise in adaptations of works in other media, to the point that even terrible source material will do: How much confidence can you possibly have in the imaginations of your screenwriters if you think MARMADUKE lends you any credibility? However, both of us have obviously got something wrong — because the answer to the first two questions in the second paragraph would appear to be “at least 44 years,” which you’d think would be plenty of time for the medium to die off if people were all that outraged about it.