Love Note – Mustang

Sisterhood truly is the most potent, inspiring and exasperating relationship: where grievous bodily harm can magically turn into profound silliness, which can turn into deceptive and mysterious thefts of anything from books and clothes to biscuits, which can turn into profound existential bonding conversations about love, life and the Real Housewives (substitute RH with your mutual sisterly trash). Jane Austen knew it with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; Louisa May Alcott knew it with Little Women; Phoebe Waller-Bridge knew it with Fleabag; and Deniz Gamze Ergüven absolutely knew it with Mustang. I re-watched Mustang a couple of weeks ago and it is still one of the most compelling and emotionally charged films about sisterhood I have come across.

The plot revolves around five sisters: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, and told largely through the point of view of Lale, the youngest. The sisters live with their ultra-conservative grandmother and uncle in a small village in northern Turkey. One day, after Lale tearfully says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul, the sisters go to the beach with some male friends and play in the water. They are spotted and reported to their guardians, who effectively turn their house into a prison and arrange marriages for the girls. It is at times devastating, brilliantly funny and an incitement to free spiritedness in all teenage girls, especially when confronted with the deepest and darkest patriarchal forces.

And those patriarchal forces are well and truly horrifying. One of the scenes seared into my memory is at the wedding, where the girls’ uncle, Erol, who has proven himself to be aggressive and violent not only with the girls but with their grandmother (his mother), stands drunkenly and happily in the middle of the dancefloor, eyes closed, firing his gun into the air. Where the girls had at first been dancing, they cower around him, clamping their hands to their ears as he shoots and shoots. When I first watched the film, I thought to myself ‘Why on earth is he happy? Why is he celebrating?’ He cares nothing for the girls beyond keeping their virginity intact and, with hideous irony, it is heavily suggested that he sexually abuses two of them. Maybe he is just happy that they are no longer his responsibility and that he’d fulfilled some kind of patriarchal role in getting them married off? I think this is part of the way there: in this scene, ultimately, Erol is relishing his power. He is the one with his hand on the trigger, asserting and revelling in his dominance over the lives and fortunes of his nieces. It is sickening and infuriating to watch.

Additionally, watching Lale learn how to drive holds such urgency and pathos. Selma tells her that she was unable to escape because she couldn’t drive and Lale refuses for that to become her reality too. She tries and fails and tries again to learn how to drive, enlisting the help of truck driver Yassin, even though she is easily only 11 or 12 years old. Driving is a right we so take for granted in the UK, but is a fundamentally powerful means of power and control in religious and conservative countries. The importance of women being allowed to drive in countries like Saudi Arabia is all the more pertinent after watching a film like Mustang.

Amongst the hellish religious conservatism that the film actively exposes and challenges, we see the enduring and undimming power and pleasures of sisterhood, in all its multi-faceted manifestations. Indeed, the gentle intermingling of relatively light-hearted sisterly dramas with the devastating cultural power dynamics is what makes this film at once irreverent and tragic. We see the sisters defending one another from beatings; breaking out of the house to attend a women-only football match, then gossiping and messing around in their bedroom. One sister tells of how she radically subverts the injustice and intrusion of virginity tests by partaking in anal sex to prevent ‘losing her virginity’, before later on warning another sister that she’ll rip her head off if she steals her clothes again. As such, the film perfectly balances the magically mundane sisterly qualms and quarrels with the bigger, scarier patriarchal violence that determines their freedom and their happiness.

In this, I think the film goes a step further than Jeffrey Eugenides and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: the Lisbon sisters are only ever a mystical figment of the young boys’ suburban imagination, never fully realised as ostensible young women with desires, quirks, tempers or interests, Lux being, perhaps, the exception. Mustang shows that coursing underneath all of the patriarchal violence, double standards and unfairness of being a young woman living under religious conservatism, is the understanding, camaraderie and mutual struggle of being a girl and having female siblings. It is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching and speaks to anyone who has had a sister who has driven them absolutely mad but who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them through whatever chaos comes their way, patriarchal or otherwise.

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Love Note – Vincent Van Gogh

This is an anticipatory Love Note for when I get round to seeing a new film starring Willem Dafoe called At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh and charts the final years of his life in the South of France. I haven’t seen the film yet, so cannot possibly review or attest to how good the film is, but I am nevertheless excited to see one of my favourite painters depicted on screen. This is not the first time Van Gogh and his life has been depicted on screen: one of my favourite episodes of Dr Who brought Van Gogh to life through a very moving performance by Tom Curran.

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He was also represented in the visually stunning Loving Vincent, a truly extraordinary animated film that saw artists fluent in Van Gogh’s style paint frames telling the story of his final days. In both, Van Gogh was presented as tortured, immensely sensitive, almost living and breathing his wonderful art and terminally underappreciated and misunderstood.

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I have loved Van Gogh for a very long time and I think what made him extraordinarily gifted was his capacity to paint both places and people. His style captures the nuance and intricacy of whatever it is he is looking at, and his paintings almost hum with vibrancy, no matter whether he’s painting a field scene or exploring the lines of a weathered and weary face. Additionally, he only ever painted or represented the world around him. He may have done this in an utterly original and inspired way, but it was always a reflection of what he could actually see. This put him at odds with his contemporary Paul Gaugin, who drew from his imagination to create people and figures in his paintings. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would never do this. This aesthetic and practical difference can be seen in Van Gogh’s Olive Grove and Gaugin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives:

Van Gogh Olive Groves

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This is not to say that Gaugin’s work is inferior in any way to Van Gogh’s (I actually think his Christ looks remarkably like Van Gogh in this painting, which is interesting), but it demonstrates a very interesting dynamic at work in Van Gogh’s art. His commitment to reflecting the world around him accurately, but with his own unique insight, makes his work at once highly personal and imaginative but always grounded in what is physical and real. It is endearing and almost egoless to bring such consciousness and attention to what he saw, rather than to emphasise the world by applying a story to it. Through Van Gogh’s art, we learn that the world itself is a story to tell, we don’t need to apply grand narratives of religion or myth to elevate it as such.

I have been fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the paint at both the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and from the Davies collection at the National Museum of Wales. What I learnt and what absolutely stood out to me, more than the tragic circumstances of his depression and his death, was that he was a masterful and learned technician. Whilst a lot of emphasis has been placed in popular culture on his naiveté and the impressionistic and emotional ecstasy of his paintings, what I learned was that he had an almost academic approach to art. Van Gogh developed his technique out of dedicated and meticulous study and practice. He took lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague, studied colour theory through Charles Blanc’s colour wheel and through analysis of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings, explored pointillism and the un-mixing of colours through the work of Georges Sauret, experimented in a Japanese style through a study of Japanese woodcuts, and from his friendships with Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard learnt about the versatility and vibrancy of pastels. Passionate and zealous as he famously was with his impressions and interpretations of the world around him, Van Gogh was a learned and masterful technician. I don’t think this should be overshadowed by the turbulence of his relationships or his volatile mental health. He may have found inspiration in his pain and darkness, but his expression of it came from hours, days and years of practice and development.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of Van Gogh’s work:

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The Harvest, June 1888 – The warmth of the sun radiates in this painting, everything that summer should be.

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Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, c.1887 – I have this painting on a postcard hanging up in my flat and I think it is beautiful. The sun-scorched orange of his beard complements the bright blue of his clothes and background, and the green tinges around his eyes and brow convey his deeper emotional sensitivity.

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Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888 – This is another painting on a postcard that I have hanging in my flat (courtesy of my boyfriend who loves this particular painting). It is reflective of Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art.

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Rain – Auvers, 1890 – I saw this painting at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and it brought tears to my eyes. There is a battle going on here between the sunny warmth of the land and the deep, dark despair of the rain. It reminds me that no matter how depressed, anxious and afraid we may feel, the land needs to be watered to flourish; goodness, light and clarity come from embracing and moving through the dark and difficult times.

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

Pastoral symphony

The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

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It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

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I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Death in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld

‘For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver’ – Walter Benjamin

Yesterday we heard the news that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, has died. Walter Benjamin would, perhaps, argue that Lagerfeld has been dabbling with death for his entire career (see this essay’s epigraph), but yesterday he passed away in Paris at the age of 85.  Fashion design was, undoubtedly, his entire life (apart from his love for his cat, Choupette), and such extraordinary dedication to his craft is what has made him legendary. Although he may not have openly exhibited the emotional naiveté of designers like Alexander McQueen or Raf Simons (two of my all-time favourite designers), by golly he was a figure of creative and commercial genius. Lagerfeld was able to fearlessly embrace both history and modernity, turn fashion shows into aspirational spectacles, and take his understanding of brand power to astronomical levels.[1] Those inter-locking Cs are immediately recognisable worldwide thanks to him. Although he claims that Coco Chanel would have hated his commercial transformation of the fashion house, he has adhered to her philosophy that fashion was dress-making: clothes are meant to be bought, sold and worn.[2] For Lagerfeld, as it was for Coco, fashion most definitely is not an art-form.

Karl has never been my favourite designer, even though his shows, clothes and perfume campaigns have made Chanel products ridiculously desirable (I wear Coco Mademoiselle because it smells divine and just because Keira Knightley). I am, however, not OK with the way in which he described Germany’s open-door refugee policy in 2017, which reeked of hateful Islamophobia.[3] I am not OK with the way that he has spoken about Adele, Michelle Obama or Pippa Middleton: I would find it very difficult to take if someone said that I should only show my back because my face isn’t pretty enough. It was undeniably a fucking mean thing to say.[4] For all of his designing excellence and great taste, he had a mean streak that was completely ungracious, unbecoming and offensive.

Nevertheless, his passing is deeply significant. It feels like the passing of one of modern culture’s greats, like the deaths of Seamus Heaney or Aretha Franklin. He is an icon of popular culture who has achieved the feat of having grown into a ripe old age, where so many creative lives have been cut short by illness or personal tragedy. He has traversed, witnessed and helped to create so much change over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, evidenced in the fluctuations and ideas presented in his extraordinary backlog of visual work. His death leaves a large void in the cultural fabric of the 21st century, and it’s going to be interesting to witness the unfolding transition in the wake of his death both at Chanel and Fendi, and across fashion in general.

Fashion is a funny thing: I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s conception of it as a dialectical social construct, encapsulating both commodity fetishism and the release of utopian desire and energy in a moment of historical awakening. It is both frivolous and fruitful. Whether you care about it or not, it shapes and literally dresses the world around us (please click on the picture below for the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada for further reference and explanation). Lagerfeld’s passing is another one of the great transitions we witness in life: the dying of the old ways, the liminality of not knowing what is going to come next and, ultimately, the emergence of something else, something we don’t yet know or understand. Whatever and whoever comes next, life in fashion and beyond, is going to continue to fascinate.

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[1] Lagerfeld’s adeptness for creating and designing extraordinary fashion shows is particularly significant. Classic runway exhibitions have become increasingly outdated thanks to the industry’s demands for instant, immediate access to fashion, with collection turnarounds that beggar belief. (Again, it is important to emphasise here Lagerfeld’s enormous and unparalleled creative output: he worked tirelessly and wholeheartedly to produce collections for Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort, Cruise and couture for three labels, as well as an additional Metiers d’Art for Chanel). By creating fashion shows that turn a collection presentation into a show and a spectacle (Lagerfeld took us to an enchanted forest, a beach, a jungle, a cruise ship, a brasserie, a rocket launch, an iceberg, a data centre, Ancient Greece and a barn amongst others) he not only preserved the sanctity of the runway when it had all but become a stale, outdated method of introducing new collections, but, indeed, breathed new life into it. A ticket to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel show was perhaps the most covetable of all the fashion month shows, never mind just Paris, and were as Instagrammable as they come. As a side note, I would LOVE to compare the shows and performances of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld at some point.

[2] ‘What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did’. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/karl-lagerfeld-quotes-120855 [accessed 14:36, 20/02/2019].

[3] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chanels-karl-lagerfeld-claims-muslim-migrants-are-affront-to-holocaust-victims-cm2tr9prt

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/karl-lagerfeld-controversial-quotes-intl/index.html

Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

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I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

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'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

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Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

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Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

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‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

Love Note – Non-Christmas Christmas Films

I am not a Christian, but I have always loved Christmas. I acknowledge that in many ways it has become a consumerist shadow of its former religious and spiritual self; but nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to have lived 26 Christmases so far full of fun and festivity. Additionally, the idea of ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’ has never felt timelier or more desperately needed. The story of a displaced family and the birth of their baby in the most humble and desperate of circumstances is still very much a story for our times.

The festive period is as much about the build up to Christmas as it is about Christmas Day itself. There is no shortage of Christmas activities to get involved with, for example listening to music, writing cards, ice skating, baking, wearing jumpers, drinking mulled wine and eating all the food available with family and friends. Watching films has always been an excellent way of tapping into the Christmas spirit and I don’t need to tell you that there are a plethora of films about Christmas that are worth digging out every year. In addition, I have a few favourites that always make their way out in December that aren’t necessarily specifically festive, but embody a little bit of what Christmas should be all about.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 – A gorgeous old film based on a gorgeous book about justice, growing up and both protecting and fighting for the vulnerable. In place of a bearded man in a red coat handing out gifts, we have Gregory Peck’s masterful turn as Atticus Finch: wise, caring and as much of a sensitive, commanding presence on his porch as he is in the courtroom. This film is the gift that gives on giving.

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Edward Scissorhands, 1990 – The tenuous Christmas link comes with the large presence of snow that Edward creates with his scissorhands (and the fact that the magical Danny Elfman score has been used in a plethora of Christmas adverts over the years). This film is a fairytale set in sugary suburbia, rooting for the societal underdog against the backdrop of fickle public opinion. It is important to note that I have fallen out massively with Johnny Depp over recent years, but I am still so here for Winona Ryder.

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The Life of Brian, 1979 – This could technically be classed as a Christmas film because it begins with the nativity of Jesus and Brian, and then follows their lives up until the latter’s crucifixion. But I am including it here because as well as being absolutely hilarious, the film propagates heavily for critical thinking as opposed to mob-like sheep mentality. Plus there’s a useful Latin lesson in there for anyone interested.

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101 Dalmatians, 1996 – This film’s stars are adorable spotted puppies and Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, leaving little else to be said. I have written previously about how, killing animals and psychopathy aside, Cruella might just be one of the greatest style icons of all time and that view still stands. Fashion aside, however, this film primarily revolves around family unity, adventure and features delightful snowy countryside. Perfect Christmas fodder.

In defence of ‘mother!’

WARNING: contains spoilers

Earlier this year, the infamous Razzie awards- the annual mock awards show that coincides with the Academy Awards- announced nominations for the year’s worst films. As per usual, and quite rightly so, there was space in the nominations for the likes of the Transformers, Fifty Shades and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. This list, however, also saw the questionable inclusion of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’, a film that is a far cry from the vapid, passable films it shares company with. The nominations the film received for Worst Film, Worst Actress, Worst Actor and Worst Director come off the back of a deluge of criticism that the film received upon its release. The Razzies as an awards show aren’t designed to be taken too seriously; but they indicate that an almost general consensus has been reached that this film is a pretentious, soupy shock-fest of little substance and poor performances.[1]  In tabloid magazines, such as Grazia, Jennifer Lawrence has been ordained with a certified career blip because the film did not reach the box office heights she is used to with the likes of The Hunger Games and X-Men. In addition, the relationship between Lawrence and Aronofsky, which developed and then fell apart after filming, also became offal for the entertainment press. [2] In the meantime, ‘mother!’ was downplayed and over looked by critics, awards bodies and guilds, with the challenging issues that the film raises seemingly ignored.

This is not the first time that a dark, challenging female-centric film has failed to be acknowledged by the cultural establishment, for example Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton, or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac led by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. Some might argue that we don’t need to worry about this, because the likes of the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes aren’t necessarily worth respecting as they are so ‘weirdly subjective’ anyway, in the words of Cate Blanchett. These awards bodies only acknowledge films released at a specific time of the year, and only seem to celebrate films that reaffirm the Hollywood, film-making dream, rather than challenge it: see the recent successes of Argo, The Artist, La La Land, Birdman etc. Yet, when complex films about women are in such short supply, it is frustrating that brutal, stonking, belters of films are pushed to the fringes of small arthouse cinemas. Where are the column inches for Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey or Sean Baker’s The Florida Project? I am not arguing that ‘mother!’ needs to be universally liked. The fact that it has managed to both enthral and revile audiences is, in my opinion, much to its credit; any film that rattles people to a state of unrest on either end of the enjoyment spectrum suggests that it is worth paying attention to. However, I would like to make the case that far from being the shambles that many critics and commentators would have us think, ‘mother!’ was one of the best films last year, shockingly timely and, in the opinion of Mark Kermode, a film that will ‘impress’ the further away you get from the initial ‘oppressive’ experience of viewing it.[3]

mother!’ offers so many different readings, but I think the most significant is the film’s critique of the concept of the female muse. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, ‘Mother’, is constantly referred to as the ‘inspiration’ for ‘Him’, Javier Bardem’s egocentric writer. This is because her time is consumed with nurturing their house and home. She is referred to as ‘inspiration’ again by ‘Him’s’ publicist, the ‘Herald’ played brilliantly by Kristen Wiig, and then by the multitude of people who come into their house before all hell breaks loose. I argue that it’s the treatment of ‘Mother’ as this symbolic, abstract figure that enables the violence brought upon her by everyone in the house. The arguably mild micro-aggression displayed by ‘Him’ at the beginning of the film, such as his constantly inviting all and sundry into their home, not listening to ‘Mother’ and making a mess and expecting ‘Mother’ to clean it all up, paves the way for others to do so, and worse. This manifests when ‘Him’ and his ‘guests’ ignore her, in particular when two slam themselves repeatedly on the sink and rip it off the wall and when strangers begin to paint her walls a different colour; when a male stranger propositions ‘Mother’, he refuses to take no for an answer then calls her a ‘cunt’(a scene practically lifted from the Everyday Sexism blog or the Bye Felipe Instagram account); and when the braying crowd, who have killed her baby, start to violently beat her up and only stop when ‘Him’ tells them to. The idea of a woman serving passively as ‘inspiration’, as a beautiful muse, feeds the idea that women, particularly when confined to a domestic space, do not have subjectivity. Instead, they are vessels and symbols for men to fetishize in the name of creativity. It is the denial of a whole, complex personhood that results in a woman becoming a patriarchal doormat. Not being listened to may seem like a simple annoyance, but the more people ignore her, the more danger ‘Mother’ is in. She is drowned out by the throngs of people who invade the home, before being owned, used and abused by them all. The ringleader appears in the form of ‘Him’.

Nowhere is this seen better than when ‘Mother’ is breastfeeding her newborn son in a boarded up room that keeps the intruding guests out. In a film of claustrophobic close-ups, the shots of ‘Mother’ and her suckling baby feel softer, calmer and intimate whilst the bond between mother and child begins to strengthen. All the while, however, ‘Him’ looms in the background, watching them unblinking, unflinching, determined to show the child off to a hallway teeming with his ‘guests’. He does not care that ‘Mother’ has only just given birth, he does not care that she wants to keep the child safe and out of sight, he does not care that she wants to nourish and sustain him; he only wants to feed his own ego and vanity. In the end, he waits and watches with frightening menace, taking his opportunity to take the child from her when she inadvertently falls asleep. His entitlement can only come from viewing his wife as unequal to him: she is at times revered as a vague yet divine source of inspiration, but this also makes her vulnerable to whatever violent and aggressive whims and desires he is able to act upon her and her body.

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As a result, ‘mother! is an explicit warning of the danger posed to women who are reduced to an abstract, symbolic concept instead of respected as multi-faceted, interior beings with their own thoughts, ideas and desires. The ‘muse’ figure is essentially a dehumanised figure and the consequences for the woman, as shown in this film, are nightmarish. The final twist of the knife comes at the end of the film, where the narrative circles back to its opening scene. Instead, however, of Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Mother’, calling ‘Baby?’ to ‘Him’, it’s a new incarnation of a different woman in the exact same position. It suggests that this whole torturous experience is undeniably about to happen all over again. It would appear that men like ‘Him’ always have a second chance, they are redeemable. Women, on the other hand, do not have this privilege, but are merely inspirational fodder to be exploited again and again, one after the other from the patriarchal conveyer belt. Of all the characters in the film, the one who seems to understand this the most is the scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson’s ‘Oldest Son’. In a frantic scene, ‘Oldest Son’ kills his younger brother in a fit of rage because he doesn’t believe that anyone in his family genuinely loves or values him, asking ‘Mother’ if she understands.  Later on, he returns to ‘Mother’ alone in the house and tells her, ‘You do understand. Good luck’.[4] This tense, quiet scene foreshadows all of the horror to come and the ‘luck’ ‘Mother’ will need to navigate through it. Additionally, it is immediately of no comfort that ‘Him’ appears to enfold ‘Mother’ in his arms; she is undoubtedly within the belly of the beast, deep in the clutches of her abuser.

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Whilst the film’s violence has been condemned by many, it is the rejection of a woman as a dispensable image to inspire men that feels so timely. Within Western art, women have all too often played the role of a figurative muse for men, with horrible consequences for their emotional wellbeing. You just have to look to the experiences of Elizabeth Siddal, Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Amelie Gautreau and Uma Thurman, who all suffered from the acute power imbalance at play with the men who ‘revered’ them and for whom they provided some sort of ‘inspiration’. Importantly, this film marginally pre-dates the allegations reported against Harvey Weinstein, and the increased, renewed scrutiny of men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, Louis CK and many others who work in the creative industries and have allegedly abused women. With the subsequent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that have flourished in the wake of these allegations, the production of art will undeniably have to change. Women can no longer be used as mere muses and inspirations for writers and directors. What is ironic, however, is that such a reading of progressiveness can be taken from ‘mother!’ when Darren Aronofsky has come under criticism for his allegedly manipulative and ‘abusive’ practices: his direction triggered a well-documented panic attack from Lawrence during the process of filming, he banned bottled water from the set of Noah (2014)which led to Emma Watson falling ill, something he recommended she should ‘use for the scene’, and allegedly separated Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to play them off one another during the filming of Black Swan (2010).[5] It is wildly frustrating that a film that critiques the patriarchal disposal of women in the name of creativity, is allegedly practised by the film’s very director.

It is also as a result of this that we have to be careful about completely embracing the film’s apparent environmental agenda. Aronofsky said himself ‘I want to make a film about Mother Nature. I wanted to make a film from her perspective’, and it is an interpretation that has been picked up by Mark Kermode and Naomi Klein. [6] Aronofsky believes he has made a film that presents ‘Mother Nature’, through allegory, suffering the horrors that human beings reap on the natural world, i.e. her. Whilst I am in favour of more texts that critique environmental destruction, climate change and take aim at the over consumption of selfish, ignorant human beings, using the figure of ‘Mother Nature’ to do this is unhelpful and dangerous. ‘Mother Nature’ is perhaps the most mythologised, idealised version of femininity ever thought up. She is a ‘mother’, she ‘brings life’ and she is ‘cruel’, all stereotypes constructed about/for women that are projected onto the natural world. ‘Mother Nature’ is, ultimately, a vacant, arbitrary symbol, representing bags of patriarchal dogma and we need to be critical of that. What is frustrating is that reading the Earth as a woman feeds into the problematic negation of subjectivity that the film does so well to portray. Indeed, focusing on a figurative ‘Mother Nature’ undercuts all the work ‘mother!’ does to critique the presentation of women as abstraction. It is so ironic yet, perhaps, unsurprising that Aronofsky, given his dodgy history of abusive practice towards his actresses and partners, encourages us to think of Earth embodied as a woman. This should serve as an enormous reminder to us that we must not limit our interpretations of texts to whatever the writer/director may or may not have intended.

In its presentation of the danger posed to female muses, ‘mother!’ is radical and unflinching. Art, in all its forms, is barbaric if it is leeched from or comes at the expense of the subjectivity and personhood of those close to the artist. Importantly, Aronofsky is not exempt from this and we must approach his diagnosis of his film as about ‘Mother Nature’ with a large, healthy amount of critical scepticism and a copy of Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’. Nevertheless, ‘mother!’ is an important film because it does so much to highlight that this construct of the ‘female muse’ is a dehumanising, unsustainable abuse of power. It is a performative, disorientating film that bombards the senses with unrelenting noise and visual horror, but that does not mean that it is a mess that lacks any political awareness. I would encourage as many people as possible to steel up some nerves, get a bottle of gin ready for the credits and watch this film. It deserves to be given some critical attention because its presentation of gendered power imbalance in art is so unfettered, so immersive and so appropriate in this era of #TimesUp. It reminds us that film should not just be reassuring, escapism; we need films that challenge us, hold up a mirror to the dynamics at play in the world around us and to give us the impetus to ask one of the most important questions of all: ‘what are we going to do about it?’.

[1] ‘Film Review: mother! is a pretentious mess’ http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170914-film-review-mother-is-a-pretentious-mess

[2] ‘Jennifer Lawrence set to end things with Darren Aronofsky?’, Grazia, https://graziadaily.co.uk/celebrity/news/jennifer-lawrence-set-end-things-darren-aronofsky/

[3] Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio Five Live http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05g6x9d

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vhra0KrIfs [accessed 28th May 2018].

[5] ‘Why Do We Let “Genius” Directors Get Away With Abusive Behavior?’, https://www.buzzfeed.com/imransiddiquee/hollywood-abusive-auteur-problem?utm_term=.bj3Gjm8QO#.hjrxNYnr3,  Imran Siddiquee, Buzzfeed [Posted on 25th October 2017, at 11:55 pm]; ‘Emma Watson fell ill on Noah set after Darren Aronofsky banned bottled water’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/17/emma-watson-noah-darren-aronofsky-banned-bottle-water, Ben Child, The Guardian, [Posted on 17 February 2014, at 12.48 GMT]; ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know About Natalie Portman’, https://www.vogue.com/article/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-natalie-portman, Maria Ward, Vogue [Posted on 20th August 2016 at 11:00].

[6] Naomi Klein contacted Aronofsky to note how ironic it was that the film was released whilst Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean and on the mainland USA. Also note later on Jennifer Lawrence’s description of her breakdown due to her immersion in the scene being ‘too much’, compared to Aronofsky’s satisfaction with the events that occurred during filming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyZVUC5jeVw&t=162s [1:13, accessed 8th March 2018].