Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I've been thinking for some time about how fandom reacts when its beloved auteurs fail.  When someone like Aaron Sorkin produces something as preachy, self-satisfied, and misogynistic as The Newsroom, fandom reacts with dismay, but is that surprise justified?  In Sorkin's case, all of these flaws were baked into his work going back as far as Sports Night, and they were ignored, excused, and forgiven because what he was producing was of such high quality.  Is it really surprising that a writer who has been showered with unconditional praise and adulation should feel free to indulge their worst impulses, and revel in bad habits they might previously have worked to curtail?  I mention this because going into The Dark Knight Rises, I was determined not to make this sort of mistake.  The previous volume in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, was an excellent film--thrilling, sharply plotted, one of the best superhero films of the last decade.  It also ended on a risible note, with Batman choosing to take responsibility for the crimes of crimefighter turned psychotic murderer Harvey Dent, on the belief that the people of Gotham couldn't handle the truth of Harvey's fall from grace, and that without his shining example to guide them they would fall into barbarism and criminality.  It would have been easy to ignore this troubling conclusion in favor of the excellent film that preceded it.  To do as fandom is too prone to doing, and say "yes, this story is problematic, but it's also such a good story!"  But this would be to ignore the strain of fascist authoritarianism, of Great Man fetishism, that has run through all of Nolan's Batman films.  In the trilogy's concluding volume--in which, after being relegated to observer status in The Dark Knight, Batman would once again take center stage--it seemed reasonable to assume that these problematic themes would be intensified rather than toned down.

I was prepared, in other words, for The Dark Knight Rises to be an excellent story with a contemptible message.  But what Nolan, along with brother and collaborator Jonathan, has delivered is so much more disappointing.  The Dark Knight Rises is a flabby, talky film, prone to pounding in its points with a hammer, then repeating them several times to catch up the slow audience members.  It has a silly plot whose twists, with one notable exception, are telegraphed well ahead of time, and which hangs together only because the film as a whole is too dreary to arouse the kind of scrutiny that would lay bare its many plot holes.  Most of these flaws can, indeed, be traced back to the Nolans' determination to reinforce their Randian vision of Batman as the only person who can restore Gotham to its glory.  Most noticeably, the film bogs down in its final third because the Nolans whisk Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) away from the beleaguered city for months so that he can gain enlightenment and return to Gotham even more heroic than he left it--a process that is achieved by having various Magical Foreign People spew repetitive cod-philosophy at him while he has a training montage.  But the Nolans also undercut this theme, in ways that, far from granting it the complexity it so desperately needs, only serve to neuter it.  In the end, the Nolans seem to lack the courage of their convictions.

In the early scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, there's almost a sense that the Nolans are about to back off from the high-handedness of The Dark Knight's ending.  In the eight years since that night, the sainted and hollow memory of Harvey Dent has been used to clean Gotham's streets, but only by stripping away the civil rights of those deemed criminal, and the architect of this process, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), is sick with himself over the lie that he's promulgated.  What soon becomes clear, however, is that rather than feeling shame at having lied to the people of Gotham, or at having sold them the fantasy of a savior, what irks Gordon is the fact that he's sold them the wrong savior, and that Batman remains maligned and despised.  As if to drive home the theme of unappreciated heroism, we learn in the film's opening scene that the mayor is planning to fire Gordon.  "He's a hero," Gordon's gladhanding, politically-savvy second in command protests.  "A war hero.  This is peacetime," he's told.  Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is a shut-in, his body ruined by his crimefighting escapades, his mind still reeling from the loss of his lover Rachel.   He's the subject of sneering rumor and speculation, not least from the board of his company, whose fortune he's squandered on a clean fusion project that he later shut down with no results.  He did this, we soon learn, to keep the technology out of the hands of those who could turn the reactor into a bomb.  This echoes the subplot in The Dark Knight in which Bruce builds a machine that can spy on anyone in Gotham, then destroys it after one use because no one should have such unlimited power, and nor is it the only instance of such thinking in The Dark Knight Rises--by the end of the film, the revelation that Bruce has bought yet another company, or concealed yet another technological development, to keep it out of the wrong hands, feels almost like a running joke.  The film, of course, means it entirely in earnest, and accepts that Bruce not only has the right but the authority to decide which technologies are safe enough for the general public to use.

Far from toning down The Dark Knight's message, then, The Dark Knight Rises takes it to even further extremes.  This isn't simply Batman having the moral authority to act as judge and jury on Gotham's criminals.  This is Batman--and Bruce Wayne--as John Galt, the mysterious, reclusive, omni-competent, super-rich industrialist who is the only hope for the future.  The Dark Knight Rises extends Batman's authority past crime, into technological progress, and even into social welfare--when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer Blake, a Batman believer who is one of the first to uncover signs of the film's villain, starts his investigation by following up the murder of a homeless teen, he learns that the boy was kicked out of his group home because the cash-strapped Wayne Foundation has stopped funding it.  In other words, it's not just the police that needs to be augmented by a caped crusader, but every level of government that must be replaced by private enterprise and private philanthropy.  And when that private benefactor is mocked, derided, hobbled in his efforts to keep his community safe and even hunted down for those efforts--why, then he will retreat from his obligations, and the result will be disaster.

That disaster comes, fittingly enough, in the form of a people's revolution--or rather, this being that sort of movie, in the form of a revolution that claims to be on the people's behalf but is really a force of evil.  Bane (Tom Hardy, wasted under a mask that conceals most of his face and in a role that demands little of him but an imposing physique), the last surviving member of the League of Shadows, the villains of Batman Begins, arrives in Gotham seeking revenge.  He steals Bruce Wayne's fortune, defeats and disables Batman, and converts that dangerous fusion reactor from a few paragraphs ago into a nuclear bomb.  This he uses to hold the entire city hostage, an act that he describes as the liberation of Gotham's citizens--from a corrupt government, from Commissioner Gordon's lies about Harvey Dent, and from the oppression of the moneyed classes--but which is really a preamble to the bomb's inevitable explosion.  What follows is equal parts Communist and French revolutions, with Gotham's rich and powerful rousted from their homes and marched into show trials as enemies of the people--in a court which is presided over by Batman Begins's deranged (and, when last seen, committed) villain, Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who looms over the accused from atop a pile of desks.

Now might be a good time to stop and boggle at the fact that the Nolans' Batman films are renowned for their realism.  The image of Crane perched on those desks is a reassuringly Alice in Wonderland-ish touch, a hint that we're meant to take the city's sudden descent into Jacobinism with a grain of salt.  Alas, it's but a brief reprieve from the po-faced seriousness with which The Dark Knight Rises otherwise serves up this plot.  The Dark Knight managed to make comic book characters and plots seem organic to the real world because it injected a single irrational player--the Joker--into a system whose other participants, cops and criminals alike, were rational, and therefore had no idea how to approach a force whose choices and motivations they couldn't fathom.  The Dark Knight Rises fills Gotham with these irrational players--not just Bane but an army of henchmen who seem to have no recognizably human reactions or emotions, and will gladly die at Bane's command--and has them do ridiculous, cartoonish things--Bane traps Gotham's entire police force in the city's sewers, and then instead of killing them he keeps them prisoner for months, at the end of which they march out, uniforms barely mussed, ready to fight Bane's forces--all while pretending that this is a meaningful political statement.

A silly premise might have been forgivable if the film had developed its implications in interesting ways, but, much like The Legend of Korra last month, The Dark Knight Rises uses its villain as a means of avoiding those implications.  Both stories are ostensibly about the cities they are set in and the battle for their soul, and yet those cities--their culture, their norms, and most of all their people--are curiously absent.  Like Korra's Amon, Bane claims to be acting on behalf of the city's underclass, and establishes a policy of violent persecution against the upper classes.  And as we were in Korra, we are kept entirely in the dark on the question of how the people of Gotham feel about this.  Do they support Bane?  Do they oppose him?  Do they think he has the right idea but the wrong methods?  Are they, as seems most likely, divided between these options according to their social status in the pre-occupation world?  The Dark Knight Rises ignores all these questions.  The people responsible for Gotham's suffering are only Bane and his followers (whose ranks are not, as far as we can tell, swelled by Gotham's have-nots), and the people responsible for stopping him are only the few policemen who managed to evade Bane's trap, the authority figures whom he has deposed--no civilians join the resistance.  Anyone who does not fall into either of these groups is completely ignored. 

Gotham spends months under Bane's rule--months that you'd expect to have a profound impact on the social, psychological, and cultural life of the city--but upon his defeat all we see are its citizens stepping out of their homes (as if they'd spent all that time indoors), ready to resume their lives as if the very fabric of their society hadn't been ripped to shreds.  What's interesting is that the Nolans had an opportunity here to reinforce their authoritarian message and show why Batman is necessary--because when stripped of both their white knight, the lie of Harvey Dent, and their dark knight, the citizens of Gotham turn to Bane, a false savior.  The film could have shown us Gothamites turning on one another, informing on their neighbors and signing up to do Bane's bidding--the nightmare scenario that justified Batman's choice to take responsibility for Harvey Dent's crimes.  Instead, the Nolans prefer to serve up a fantasy of docile, patient goodness, of a populace content to wait for Batman to save it without doing anything--good or evil--on its own behalf.

Since Bane is planning to blow up Gotham, his claims of populism are easily dismissed--can be taken, in fact, as an attack against the very notion of popular, anti-capitalist protest.  Even more disappointing, however, is the fact that The Dark Knight Rises squanders the opportunity to address the class struggle in a more nuanced way, through the character of Catwoman.  For a lot of Batman fans, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight had to clear an impossible hurdle in the form of Jack Nicholson's turn as the character in Tim Burton's Batman.  For me, the iconic Batman villain performance is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, and I was very nervous to see what the Nolans and Anne Hathaway would make of the character--not least because, let's face it, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have a woman problem.  It's not as pronounced as Aaron Sorkin's or Steven Moffat's--the Nolans' women are generally competent, rarely hysterical or weepy, and have interests other than landing a husband--but it has nevertheless marred most of their films, in which women are either love interests (often dead ones), or minor plot tokens with little in the way of personality or motivations.  So it was something of a surprise to discover that Hathaway's Selina Kyle, though she doesn't hold a candle to the scary intensity of Pfeiffer's performance, is one of the Nolans' best female characters (and my favorite part of the film), followed close behind by Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate, the visionary who contracts with Bruce to build the fusion reactor.  Both women have their own agenda and aspirations which are given their own space in the narrative, not just as they reflect on the hero's journey or his feelings--the first time this has been true of a woman in a Nolan film since Carrie-Ann Moss's character in Memento.  Hathaway's Selina, in particular, has her own arc of growth over the course of the film, and she is also the one who gets to defeat Bane (though only after it's revealed that he is actually the film's secondary villain).  At the film's end, she is the only character in the cast whose further adventures I'd like to learn about.

All that said,  the cost of this compelling character arc is that Catwoman's rough edges are filed off, and with them her politics.  Perhaps wisely given their track record with female characters, the Nolans choose to veer away from the angry feminist slant that Burton gave Catwoman, and instead make her a class warrior.  A jewel thief, she justifies her crimes simply by the fact that she steals from those who have so much, and tells Bruce Wayne that "you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."  Unlike Bane, Selina says things like this in earnest, and also unlike him, she is for the most part a sympathetic character, whose moments of villainy are usually the result of straitened circumstances rather than malice, and whose bitterness over having been dealt a bad hand that has forced her to make increasingly bad choices shines through her disaffected mask and lends moral authority to her views.  Through her, then, the film could have given us another perspective on the class struggle that Bane sparks, one that could have suggested that he is playing on a legitimate grievance.  Instead, the film uses the earnestness of Selina's convictions to dismantle them.  When she sees the violence that has accompanied Bane's revolution, the suffering of the rich whom she had previously reviled, Selina repents of her desire for revolution, and by the end of the film she is fighting by Batman's side to defeat Bane.  The message here is clear--capitalism, however predatory, is still better than the alternative--and it's Selina's own believability as an enemy of capitalism that helps to sell it.  What's more, the fact that she's positioned as a love interest for Bruce Wayne--the very representative of everything she despises--helps to undercut Selina's convictions, which are overpowered by her affections for Bruce.  One can't help but compare this turnaround to Pfeiffer's last scene in Batman Returns, in which she tells Batman "I would love to live with you in your castle ... I just couldn't live with myself."  That Catwoman had the strength to give up what she wanted for the sake of her beliefs; the Nolans' Catwoman doesn't.

Of course, by the time this turnaround happens, Batman himself has backed away from the authoritarianism, the Randian dogma, that permeated the first half of the film.  The crux of Bruce's long sojourn away from the city (which is the reason that Bane's occupation of Gotham lasts so long despite the fact that the film can't convincingly portray the effects of such an ordeal, and indeed glosses over most of that period as far as Gotham is concerned) is that he is courting death.  This echoes Albert's repeated admonitions in the film's first half, and indeed the tone of the entire film is slanted to both warn us and lead us to expect Batman's death.  In case we weren't clear on just what kind of death he's heading towards, the film has Selina offer to leave Gotham with Bruce, because "you don't owe these people any more.  You've given them everything."  "Not everything.  Not yet," is his reply.  And if that were not enough, the film's surprise villain stabs Batman in the side.  That's right.  After three films, including one of most critically lauded superhero film in years, and a mass of critical and fannish buzz building up to a consensus on the uniqueness and depth of the Nolans' vision for Batman, their final statement on the character is: Batman as Jesus.  The same tired, unoriginal, hokey theme that has shown up in just about every superhero film in the last decade.  (Adding insult to injury is the fact that Batman's self-sacrifice is nothing of the sort; though he tells the other characters that he is embarking on a suicide mission, he knows that he has a chance of survival and has merely chosen to fake his death.  The film, in its fetishizing of this "death," completely ignores this inconvenient wrinkle.)

At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Blake, who has spent the film as Batman's de facto apprentice, laments to Gordon that no one will know who truly saved Gotham.  This is such a whiny thing to say that it's unbelievable--who cares who saved the city or whether they're acknowledged?  Surely what's important is that the city was saved, and surely that's all a true hero would care about?  But Gordon himself seems to be of Blake's mind--the last thing he says to Batman before sending him off to what he thinks is his death is that Gotham deserves to know who saved it.  The conclusion that both Gordon and Blake reach is that Gotham knows who its hero is--it's Batman, whether or not the city knows that Bruce Wayne was the man behind the mask.  And indeed, Gotham unveils a statue of Batman in one of the film's final scenes, even as Blake, who has resigned from the police force (because, he says, he now feels that the system is preventing him from doing good), discovers the Batcave and becomes the new Batman.  But this is only to reinforce the mealy-mouthed conclusion to which the Nolans' have brought their vision of Batman the Great Man.  The truly authoritarian, Frank Miller-style Batman doesn't care about the public's accolades--nor, indeed, their condemnation.  He acts because he believes his strength and competence give him the authority to act and the ability to know which act is right, regardless of what the public or government think of him or try to do to him.  A work like Miller's The Dark Knight Returns forces its readers to face up to the inherent fascism of such a worldview, and challenges them to either fall in line or get out of the way.  The Nolans, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it too.  Their Batman, Blake's Batman, and even Bruce Wayne's Batman are all Batmen in desperate need of approval.  They want a moral authority that transcends government and the will of the people, but they also want the government and the people to like and appreciate them.

As objectionable as I find the Great Man fetishism of the Nolans' Batman films, I might have still respected it had they, like Miller, taken it to its logical conclusion, but instead the Nolans' Batman trilogy concludes not with an examination of Batman's right to act, but with a reinforcement of the notion that it is tragic that his actions are not properly appreciated.  In this scheme, the persecution that Batman suffers isn't just the cost of doing business, but a necessary component of his apotheosis.  Like Jesus on the cross, he has to be mocked and tormented by a small-minded mob before he turns around and magnanimously saves them all.  What The Dark Knight Rises amounts to is a great, self-pitying cry of You'll see, one day I'll be dead and then you'll be sorry.  I'm mainly sorry that I didn't stop with the previous film.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Brave

It may at first seem strange to say that Brave is a movie with a lot to prove.  After all, Pixar remains one of the few Hollywood studios whose name is a hallmark of quality, and it closed out the last decade with the one-two-three punch of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, a trio of films so sublime and so perfectly formed that in their wake an aura of infallibility seemed to attach itself to the studio.  Even if that aura was tarnished by the misstep that was last year's Cars 2--the first Pixar film to be critically ignored and shut out of the Best Animated Film Oscar category since its creation--there's no denying that, going by the numbers, Pixar is the most consistently excellent studio in Hollywood.  Of course, another way of putting it is that after Toy Story 3, there was nowhere for Pixar to go but downhill, and there are signs of trouble besides Cars 2's tepid reception--the fact that a studio that once prided itself on the originality of its stories will, by next year, have produced two sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2) and one prequel (Monsters University, which depicts the college years of the protagonists of Monsters Inc.) in the space of four years is deeply worrying, suggesting that Pixar is falling in line with Hollywood's other juggernaut animation studio, Dreamworks, and with the general Hollywood tendency to eschew originality in favor of multiple sequels, prequels, and reboots, of which the recent The Amazing Spider-Man, a pleasant but entirely unnecessary effort that mostly recapitulates the beats of a movie that came out only ten years ago, is but the latest example.  So Brave, as Pixar's first original story in three years, had a lot riding on it.  And when you add to that the fact that the film comes as a reply to the voices--raised most loudly in the wake of Up, which opened with the introduction of a magnetic, adventurous female character only to kill her off after ten minutes, but by no means silent before it--pointing out that for all Pixar's originality and flair, the stories it created were predominantly stories about men, the burden of expectations is more than doubled.

Brave opened in the US a few weeks ago, so by now you will have heard that it has not proven equal to this burden.  Though by no means a bad film, it lacks the narrative and thematic complexity that have characterized previous Pixar films.  It's a simple story--much simpler and more shopworn than "a robot whose job it is to clean up the polluted Earth falls in love with a more advanced robot and follows her into space" or "a grieving, elderly widower decides to honor his wife by flying their house on the adventure they never got to share"--and very simply, and obviously, told--this is the first Pixar film I can remember, for example, that opens with a voiceover in which the main character explains (unnecessarily, for the most part) her world and her situation to the audience.  The worldbuilding in most Pixar films is characterized, and elevated, by its attention to idiosyncratic details--Wall-E doesn't just love Earth culture, he loves Hello, Dolly!; Carl wasn't simply inspired by film serials about adventures and derring-do, he was inspired by a particular explorer who, among other things, likes to fit his dogs with collars that allow them to talk.  Brave, on the other hand, seems to run more on clichés.  You've got your medieval Scottish castle, with a king, a queen, princes and princesses, visiting nobles, servants, warriors--all very well done, but in a very familiar way that the film never bothers to shade in or make its own.  The wacky, imaginative detail we've grown accustomed to seems here to have been replaced by funny accents and ethnic stereotypes.  (I'm quite curious to see what the reaction to Brave in the UK will be, since for all that it is a very funny film, most of the humor boils down to "look how Scottish these people are!")  The result is a world that, for all the obvious effort put into bringing it into vivid, gorgeous life, feels thin, and that thinness extends to the film's plot, which proceeds in rather obvious, clomping beats that seem to squander its running time.  There just isn't that much that happens here (especially in comparison with the nimble, fast-moving plots of previous Pixar films), and what happens is, again, obvious and familiar.

The real problem with this sense of familiarity, however, isn't the way it seems to indict Pixar's ability to craft original stories, but in the way it seems to indict Pixar's ability to write stories about women.  Far more than its thin world or plot, or its reliance on clichés, what troubles me about Brave is that when, after fifteen years of being synonymous with originality and unbridled imagination, the folks at Pixar finally set out to write a story about a girl, what they came up with is essentially a Disney Princess Movie.  Quite literally, at the most basic level--our heroine, Merida, is the first-born daughter of the high king--but also in terms of the story it chooses to tell.  Like Belle and Jasmine, Merida's story kicks off because she is being pressured into marriage, but actually craves a life of adventure.  And like Mulan, she rejects the feminine pursuits she's been encouraged to master in favor of martial ones--archery, horseback riding, mountain climbing, and the general joy in her physical accomplishments.  The film seems to owe a particular debt to Beauty and the Beast, and its climax, in which a transformed character is restored to humanity by Merida's declaration of love, feels almost like a direct quote.

On one level, this is very disappointing.  Boys, it seems, can in Pixar's conception lead any sort of story.  They can be the caretakers of a small child's imagination, or the architect of a plan to protect their home from invasion, or a doting, over-protective father.  They can learn how to be a chef, or go into space, or travel to South America in a flying house.  But when asked to tell a story about a girl, the first thing Pixar plumped for is a princess who is told she can't do things because she's a girl.  That this turns out not to be true is a heartening message, but it was already a heartening message in 1991, and the fact that we're still concentrating on climbing that hurdle more than twenty years later is dispiriting.  Because the fact is that by going back to this well, by bringing up terms like princess, marriage, and the conflict between "masculine" and "feminine" pursuits, what Pixar is saying is that a boy's story can be about anything--adventure, grief, parenthood, longing for companionship, learning to be the best at what you love--but a girl's story is always and forever about being a girl.  How much more encouraging would it have been, how much more positive a message would it have sent, if Pixar's first story about a girl were no different from their stories about boys except for the gender of its protagonist?

All that said, there is another way of looking at Brave, and that is that it is trying to examine, and in many ways dismantle, the conventions of the princess movie.  For one thing, there's no love interest.  One of the main points to be laid against Disney Princesses is that for all that their stories may revolve around self-actualization, they invariably end with romance and marriage.  Belle sings about wanting more than a provincial life, but what this ends up meaning is marriage to a rich man.  Jasmine isn't even the heroine of her story, and though she protests that she isn't "a prize to be won," narratively that is her role.  Even Mulan ends her story not as a general but as a girl receiving a suitor.  In Brave, Merida says that she doesn't want to get married, and the film takes her at her word.  The three suitors who come to her father's castle to vie for her hand remain minor characters, played mostly for laughs.  Instead, the central love story in Brave is between Merida and her mother, Elinor.  It's Elinor who pressures Merida to be feminine and ladylike, and Elinor who arranges the contest for Merida's hand, which drives a wedge between mother and daughter.  Merida's rebellion leads her to buy a potion that will change Elinor's mind about marrying her daughter off, but instead it transforms Elinor into a bear.  In order to reverse the spell Merida must heal her relationship with her mother.  Especially when one considers how little space mothers, and the relationship between mothers and daughters, take up in movies, and how particularly in movies about girls--be they Princess Movies, movies about Strong Female Characters, or some cross between the two--mothers are sidelined, either dead or just not very important, this emphasis is refreshing and laudable.

Even more intriguing, however, is the ambivalence with which Brave treats both Elinor's insistence on ladylike decorum, and Merida's preference for martial pursuits.  The film showcases the latter, and Merida's joy in them and in her physicality, in its early scenes, and after her transformation Elinor learns to appreciate her daughter's accomplishments in this realm, and even develop a few of her own.  But Brave remains skeptical of the value of these accomplishments, especially when it contrasts them with the way Elinor uses her power.  Elinor draws her power from femininity--she's the sort of woman who, by behaving like lady, gets to insist that the men around her behave like gentlemen, and as the film opens she's using that power to try to make peace between fractious clans, and needs Merida to follow her lead and use her femininity in order to accomplish this by marrying one of the clans' heirs, a plan to which Merida is resistant.  Merida's first attempt to avoid marriage involves showcasing her martial abilities.  She chooses archery as the field in which her three suitors will compete for her hand, then beats them all at it.  It's a badass moment, but Merida's (and our) triumph are soon punctured by Elinor, who points out that by humiliating her father's guests, Merida is risking war.  In one of the film's climactic scenes, we see that Merida has learned this lesson.  With the lords she enraged on the brink of fighting, she steps in (in a direct echo of an earlier scene in which Elinor had calmed a rambunctious mob by walking into it while female) and talks them all down, echoing her mother's words about the importance of cooperation and peace.

Brave ends with a reversal of roles--Elinor the bear saves the day through force of arms, by fighting off the demon bear Mordu (another transformed human) who has been terrorizing the kingdom, while Merida saves it through feminine skills, by sewing together the tapestry depicting her family which she had previously slashed, a condition of lifting the spell.  So on the surface it seems that we've reached a sort of equilibrium, with both martial and domestic pursuits treated as equally important and potentially life-saving.  But this conclusion feels less important, and less central to the film's message, than Merida's choice to adopt her mother's point of view and her methods--to the extent that she very nearly agrees to marry one of her suitors before Elinor stops her--in the earlier scene.  Ultimately, Brave comes down on Elinor's side.  It may buck the tradition of Disney Princess Movies by not giving Merida a love interest and by ending with her still single, but this is quite obviously a temporary state.  Merida and Elinor's compromise is that Merida can choose who she wants to marry and when.  She doesn't get to choose not to marry, however, nor does she get to choose to run off and live a life of adventure, or to inherit her father's throne on her own.  Merida's fate--which the film and the character are so concerned with--is to become Elinor.  One day she will marry a prince or chieftain, become queen, and like her mother, use her influence on her husband and his lords to bring peace and cooperation to their land.

This isn't entirely a bad message, of course.  In this era of Strong Female Characters, it's worth saying that being warlike isn't a good thing just because a woman does it, and that being a peacemaker might be better (though I can't help but wish that peacemaking and femininity were not so frequently linked, as they are in Brave).  Being a wife, a mother, and a force for peace and civility are all things of value, and this is a point worth making.  But one does wonder whether a medieval patriarchy is the best setting in which to show off that value.  The fact is, the kind of feminine power that Elinor ascribes to--the angel in the house, the font of decorum and civility, the woman who, by behaving like a lady, forces the men around her to behave like gentlemen--is a pernicious lie, one that remained ubiquitous well into the last century and still has significant power today, and which feminism has worked hard to root out.  Elinor may be a diplomat and a leader, but she is those things only because of who her husband is, and she maintains her power only on the sufferance of her husband and his vassals.  All it takes is one sufficiently powerful man who won't play the game--or who won't play it with her, since her power derives not simply from being a lady but from being a lady attached to a particular man--to take all her power away.  For all their tendency to fall into the valorization of strength of arms, stories about women warriors gained popularity because they offered a corrective to the complementarian fantasy of this sort of feminine power, this strength through weakness, reminding women that power that is your own is better than power that is contingent on the goodwill of men--goodwill that often doesn't exist.

Brave tries to reconcile these two ideas of female power, but the only way it can do this is to posit a fantasy world in which all men are rambunctious but harmless children, who would never lift a hand against a woman and can always be whipped into gentlemanly shape by a stern word and a disappointed expression.  That's a dangerous message to send to young girls (and to young boys too), especially coupled as it is with the film's deprecation of martial strength.  For all the interesting things Brave tries to do with the Princess Movie template--it is, for one thing, a movie that treats being a princess as a job and castigates its heroine for shirking it--it can't get away from the inherent patriarchal assumptions at that template's core.  Or rather, it won't--a lot of the film's problems could have been avoided if its setting were not so famously associated with rampant misogyny, or if its conception of princessing as a job were extended to its obvious conclusion of making Merida the heir to her father's throne, combining his strength of arms with Elinor's desire for peace.  The result is a movie that, for all its best efforts to complicate this story, still assumes that a story about a girl is a story about being a girl.  What we need, however, are stories about girls and women who can do or be anything, not in spite or because of their gender but regardless of it.  This, it seems, is too much even for Pixar's unbridled imagination.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

It sometimes seems that Frances Hardinge is the best kept secret in YA. People who have read her seem unanimous in the view that Hardinge ought to be a major superstar, whose books are greeted with fanfare and exhilaration. But though she's always well reviewed, Hardinge remains under the radar, particularly among the adult readership of YA fiction who should be embracing the sophistication and complexity of her worlds. Part of the problem, of course, is that Hardinge doesn't write the kind of dystopias that have been the dominant and popular flavor in YA since at least The Hunger Games (and that her novels skew a bit younger than those books, with pre-adolescent protagonists who rarely have romance on their minds). Or at least not blatantly, since nearly all of Hardinge’s novels take place in restrictive societies and focus on the lone voice (usually that of a young girl) that dares to challenge them. It's just that Hardinge’s dystopias are more detailed and a great deal more thought out than the “cheerleaders have been banned and the government controls pets” variety, to the extent that their restrictiveness is often not obvious on a first glance, and her protagonists are not thinly disguised modern teens, but products of their society, steeped in its culture and conventions, and often warped by it in ways that the reader might find alienating.

In my favorite of Hardinge's novels, Gullstruck Island, the restrictive society of the titular island is shaped by nature and history, most obviously by the island’s overactive volcanoes and the different attitudes that its native and colonizing inhabitants have towards them. Her latest novel, A Face Like Glass, takes the opposite approach—its setting, the underground city of Caverna, is manufactured and rooted in artifice, in the various mechanisms that Caverna’s citizens have devised in order to make a sealed underground cave system livable for hundreds of years, and the customs that ensure their continued survival in such an unnatural environment. I confess that I prefer the former approach. The emphasis on natural environment and on the pressures that nature brings to bear on human settlements in Gullstruck Island imposed a degree of realism on the way that Hardinge imagined and built the island’s society that to my mind only enriched the novel, whereas a sealed, artificial environment gives her the freedom to create outlandish customs and policies simply because that’s the way they do it here—as she did in her previous novel, Twilight Robbery, whose heroine visits a city in which people are categorized as good or evil according to which hour of the day they were born in. Happily, A Face Like Glass seems cognizant of this pitfall, and instead of using Caverna's artifice as a crutch it plays it up and makes it the focus of the novel. Caverna's society not only survives through artifice, but has made it the foundation of its culture, a highly stratified society whose upper echelons, the great families who curry for favor and advantage in the court of the Grand Steward, are locked in a subtle dance of manners, etiquette, and subtle insults (behind these fixed smiles and feigned politeness, of course, vicious rumor mills and assassination plots run rampant). But the most profound and dominant expression of Caverna's artificiality are its Faces.
In the overground world, babies that stared up at their mother's faces gradually started to work out that the two bright stars they could see above them were eyes like their own, and that the broad curve was a mouth like theirs.  Without even thinking about it, they would curve their mouths the same way, mirroring their mothers' smiles in miniature.  When they were frightened or unhappy, they would know at once how to screw up their faces and bawl.  Caverna babies never did this, and nobody knew why.  They looked solemnly at the face above them, and saw eyes, nose, mouth, but they did not copy its expressions.  There was nothing wrong with their features, but somehow one of the tiny silver links in the chain of their souls was missing.  They had to be forced to learn expressions one at a time, slowly and painfully, otherwise they remained blank as eggs. 
These learned expressions, numbered and named--"Face 41, the Badger in Hibernation"; "No. 29 - Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound"--are a brilliant way of literalizing the fundamental falseness that lies at the core of the kind of royal court that runs Caverna. Caverna's aristocrats wear masks made of their own flesh, schooling their expressions to suit the prevailing mood, the political climate, the day’s fashion, or simply their personal goals. But Hardinge doesn't leave it at that. She works out the implications of a society in which facial expression is artificial in several fascinating ways, from the personal—a character who muses of her lover that "Every one of [his] small, dark smiles she had carefully designed for him at one time or another, to suit his face and his character.  And now these smiles had more power over her than anything else in the world."; another who is told that "There is a feeling deep down inside you ... You don't really know what it is, or how to describe it.  You do not have the Face for it.  And so you scan all the Face catalogues, and ask for Faces every birthday because perhaps, just perhaps, if you had the right Face, you might understand what you are feeling"—to the political. In Caverna, Faces are a hallmark of privilege. The rich and aristocratic can afford the fine schooling in which they are taught a wide variety of Faces, and will even hire Facesmiths to create custom expressions for them, but the poor are raised in crèches where they are taught a minimal range of expression which reflects their place in society—"Erstwhile did not have any angry or annoyed expressions.  Worker and drudge-class families were never taught such Faces, for it was assumed they did not need them." The limit to their expressiveness also serves as a way of keeping the poor in their place, as a character muses when she observes the crushing, oppressive conditions they live in.
How could the drudges rise up against bullies like the foreman?  Rebels needed to look at each other and see their own anger reflected, and know that their feeling was part of a greater tide.  But any drudge who glanced at his fellows would see only calm, tame Faces waiting for orders.
The speaker here is our heroine, Neverfell, a classic outsider-insider figure who crashes into Caverna's conventions and mores and leaves them in shambles. Found wandering the caves of the cheesemaker hermit Grandible (one of Caverna’s unique qualities, and the source of its wealth, is that among its inhabitants are craftsmen who know how to make True delicacies—"wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind and balms that slowed ageing to a crawl"; Hardinge therefore has a lot of fun going into the details of Grandible’s arcane and often quite dangerous cheesemaking—his cheeses explode, or give off noxious gasses, when improperly treated—and the hallucinatory, mindblowing effects of his wares), a former courtier whose rejection of corrupting society is signaled by his having only one permanent expression, Neverfell is raised in isolation until the age of thirteen. When a runaway rabbit shows her a passageway out of Grandible's tunnels (a reference that Hardinge doesn't belabor but which is nevertheless obviously on her mind), the curious, impulsive, emotionally volatile Neverfell takes the opportunity to explore a world that she has been desperately aching to see, and immediately finds herself becoming a pawn in Caverna's political games. As Grandible has concealed from Neverfell, but as we could easily have guessed (even without reading the book's back cover) , Neverfell has the titular face like glass, on which her uncontrollable emotions are immediately apparent. This makes her the object of curiosity and attention. Facesmiths want to study her; the secret police believe that she is a spy from the outside; Caverna's five hundred year old Grand Steward, whose pleasures have desiccated after such a long life, wants to live vicariously through her naked emotional responses; and powerful courtier Maxim Childersin wants her for some unspecified purpose whose darkness the naïve Neverfell, won over by Childersin's kindness, won't consider.

Hardinge has threaded the needle of Neverfell's mingled innocence and knowingness, making her both an outsider to Caverna (quite literally, as her expressive face attests) and someone who is of Caverna, a little too precisely to be entirely believable.  Raised in isolation, Neverfell knows virtually nothing about Caverna's running--the better for the characters she meets to explain it to her, and us--but her emotional investment in Caverna's values, and especially its class system--her awe at the Grand Steward and his court, or her thoughtless acceptance of the conditions of the drudges--seem more fitting for a character who has grown up steeped in its society, not locked outside of it, and their purpose is clearly to intensify Neverfell's anger and disillusionment when she gains a fuller understanding of how Caverna works.  For a novel that works hard to tell a story about artifice without calling attention to its own artificiality, this is a rare misstep, but it is lessened by the more interesting, and more prominent, aspect of Neverfell's personality, the fact that she is emotionally damaged.  It's common for YA protagonists to be unrealistically immune to trauma--consider Harry Potter's mostly sunny personality after years of abuse--but Hardinge quite refreshingly avoids this trope.  A lifetime of living underground and in near-isolation has taken its toll on Neverfell, and in ways that we might consider offputting and unattractive--she's prone to sleepwalking, to the malaise that Cavernans call being "out of clock," when their natural cycle and Caverna's artificial one fall out of sync, and to panic attacks from which she recovers "shuddering and sick, devastation around her and her fingernails broken from clawing at the rock walls and ceilings."  And, even when judged against normal standards rather than Cavernan ones, her lack of emotional control, her tendency to say and do exactly what she's thinking as she thinks it, are jarring.

A Face Like Glass is a novel about Neverfell's emotional healing, but gratifyingly, that healing doesn't take the form of her becoming more normal or conventional.  Several characters try to teach Neverfell emotional control--by which they mean, try to teach her to restrain her impulses and not to show her every emotion on her face.  What they mean by this is that Neverfell should feel less--when her friends are concerned that the Grand Steward will see Neverfell's rage over the state of the drudges in her face, they take her to a Facesmith, who tries to reason those feelings away by reassuring her that drudges prefer hard work to luxuries and are incapable of feeling true pain and sadness--but Neverfell, and Hardinge, repeatedly stress the legitimacy of her anger and sadness.  The control Neverfell needs to learn isn't of her feelings, but of her environment--how to best express her rage in a way that is productive and helps to alleviate that rage's cause.  That control is achieved, in large part, by Neverfell learning to understand herself--to uncover the trauma of her past and the effects that that trauma has had on her--but that understanding doesn't equal complete healing.  At the end of the novel, Neverfell still bears the scars of her experiences, but she's learned to live with them, and taken control of her life.

If I'm slightly less enamored of A Face Like Glass than I was of Gullstruck Island, it's because I value Hardinge's worldbuilding skills so highly, and the deliberately constructed world of Caverna--constructed both within the story and without it, as an illustrations of Hardinge's arguments about class--shows them off less impressively than Gullstruck.  But Hardinge is more than just a worldbuilder, and in Neverfell and her journey she shows off her tendency towards nuance and complexity as well as in any of her worlds.  That same nuance may be what's keeping Hardinge from becoming a superstar--her novels lack an obvious hook and don't lend themselves to a simple selling pitch--but hopefully the work of her ardent fans will help to spread her name, and make her a slightly less well-kept secret.