Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Today's Strange Horizons review is a double look at that unlikely collaboration, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth.  Niall Harrison (as a Baxter fan and Pratchett skeptic) and I (as more or less the reverse) take a look at the novel, and both come away with mixed feelings.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Week's Films

Here's how you know it's fall: the movie theaters are waking up.  In the last week there have been two--two!--films I wanted to see (and there's still The Master to go), and though neither of them were quite up to my hopes for them, it does raise hopes that after a disappointing summer blockbuster season, there might finally be more to buy a movie ticket for than big explosion and neat special effects.
  • Skyfall (2012) - In a way, Skyfall is the film I thought Quantum of Solace would be, but it comes one movie too late.  I called Casino Royale, the revamped Bond origin story which is beginning to seem like a blip in the franchise, a serious film about the creation of a ridiculous person, and expected Quatum of Solace to take Bond further into that ridiculousness.  Instead, it carried Casino Royale's earnestness even further into Bourne territory, establishing a faceless, heartless entity known only as Quantum as Bond's nemesis.  Though a dour, overly convoluted and rather tedious film, the promise it seemed to offer of a final confrontation between Bond and Quantum went some way towards justifying Quantum of Solace's existence, but Skyfall belies that promise and gives us a fairly bog-standard Bond story whose ultimate purpose is, as I expected from its predecessor, to provide Bond with all the accouterments of his character--the gadgets, the secret headquarters, the cars--and position the stalwarts of the series around him--the film introduces a new Q and a new Moneypenny.

    Weirdly, where Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace drew inspiration from the Bourne films, Skyfall feels like the Bond equivalent of The Dark Knight Rises.  The arc of the film--and the character--is from obsolescence, as everyone from his colleagues to the dastardly bureaucrats who dare to hold MI6 and M accountable to the public question whether the age of the Bond-esque super-agent is over, to acceptance, as Bond proves his mettle.  This is problematic firstly on the simple level of plotting--we spend the first half of the film being told that Bond can't do certain things, and then he does them; neither the limitation nor his overcoming it feel persuasive--and secondly because it completely abandons the ironic questioning of the Bond-ian tropes and ethos that made Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace worth watching.  This time around, the questioners are depicted as small-minded fools nipping at Bond and M's heels, and we're meant to root for Bond's completely unironic embrace of his persona--to the extent that that embrace counts as the film's triumphant ending, despite the fact that Bond actually fails to achieve any of his goals in the story.

    By its end, then, Skyfall has brought the Bond franchise full circle, back to the campness of the Brosnan era--or even further, since by the end of the film every one of its female characters has either been killed or relegated to the secretarial pool.  This might still have been enjoyable if the film itself were not so absurdly overlong and messily plotted, lurching from one set piece to another without any sense of an overarching story to bind them all together.  Javier Bardem is nicely magnetic as the villain du jour Silva--the first proper Bond villain since Daniel Craig took over the role--though it is profoundly unfortunate that the film should have chosen to play his character as a gay predator.  Judy Dench takes the Craig-era films' fleshing out of M to its logical conclusion--the film is nearly as much M's story as it is Bond's--but that character arc is hemmed in by the demands of casting, and by the film's newly hagiographic take on Bond, which forces her, in its most absurdly sentimental scene, to quote Tennyson's "Ulysses" in Bond's defense.  Craig himself has sunk back to the blankness that bothered me about his performance in Casino Royale, but which I was persuaded was actually a choice to perform Bond as borderline sociopathic in Quantum of Solace.  It doesn't make him unsuitable for the role, especially as Skyfall defines it, but it does make his moments of vulnerability or doubt ring entirely false.  He's better when he's being blankly, and sometimes aggressively, charming, or when he responds to Bardem's threatening overtures with bemused flirtation--perhaps the only moment in the film in which Skyfall seems as aware of Bond's inherent campness, and as eager to play with it, as its two predecessors were.  Still, it's a performance that belongs in a more ambivalent, more cynical film than Skyfall is, and given the setup at the film's end it seems unlikely that we will ever see Craig take Bond apart as he is clearly capable of doing.

    Finally, one point about the film's reception: though I've been a little puzzled by the effusive responses Skyfall has received from critics, what I've found utterly infuriating is how little attention has been paid to the deep problems with the film's handling of female characters.  Perhaps because of the increased role that the film gives M, some critics have even rushed to declare Skyfall "a less sexist Bond film," but this is to ignore how ugly, offensive, and vilely misogynistic--even by the standards of this franchise--Skyfall's handling of "bad" Bond girl Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) is.  On the face of it, Sévérine fits a fairly standard template for her character type--she meets Bond, renders him some assistance on his path to finding Silva, sleeps with him, and is then killed--which might be why no reviewer has noticed the way Skyfall deviates from it--the fact that Sévérine is a rape victim, who is then raped again by Bond.  A victim of sex trafficking, Sévérine is terrified of Silva, her current owner, and begs Bond to kill him.  Their sex scene not only assumes that Sévérine--a terrified rape victim who believe that Bond represents her only chance of survival--is capable of giving meaningful consent, but involves Bond entering Sévérine's room without her knowledge, waiting until she's naked and in the shower, and walking up to her from behind while commenting on the fact that she's unarmed.  When Sévérine is killed, Bond stands by, stone-faced, makes no attempt to help or comfort her, and seems completely unaffected by her death for the rest of the film.  Obviously, misogyny is a major component of the Bond recipe, and for better or worse we've accepted that the Bond films use and discard their female characters, but Skyfall goes a step further by taking advantage of a real-world evil like sex trafficking.  It presents a story in which a wealthy, white, middle aged Westerner travels to Asia, meets a sex slave, promises to help her, has sex with her, and leaves her to the mercy of her captors (who kills her), and then expects us to root for him and forget about her.  While fannish and professional critics alike have rushed to praise Skyfall's handling of women, there's only one journalist I'm aware of who has pointed out how ugly it truly is, The Times's Giles Coren--but depressingly, he was forced to post his story on his wife's blog after the paper killed it.

  • Fill the Void (2012) - Israel's entry for this year's best foreign language film Oscar race is set in the wealthy ultra-orthodox enclaves of Tel Aviv.  Eighteen year old Shira (Hadas Yaron, who won best actress at the Venice film festival, where Fill the Void premiered) in eagerly anticipating being matched with a husband when her beloved sister Esther dies in childbirth.  When the family of Esther's widower Yochay (Yiftach Klein) suggests that he marry a widow in Belgium, Shira's mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) fears being separated from her grandson, and suggests that Yochay marry Shira, an idea that they both initially greet with dismay, and then with growing but uneasy interest.  The stage is thus set for a romantic melodrama, and Fill the Void does frequently follow in the groove of this type of story, especially in the scenes in which Shira and Yochay's powerful, unspoken chemistry seems to fill the air between them, or when the camera is trained on Yaron's transparent face and tortured expression, as Shira is torn between duty, guilt, and desire.  At the same time, however, the film also bucks the conventions of its form, most notably by depriving us of its final act--though Shira and Yochay are eventually persuaded to marry, we never find out whether love and happiness manage to blossom between them, or whether one or both of them end up regretting the decision--and through an undertone of discomfort that seems to belie the happy ending that the characters themselves think they have achieved.

    Fill the Void is the latest entry in a stream of works that seeks to satisfy secular Israeli audiences' sometimes prurient fascination with the lives of the ultra-orthodox, but it is one of only a few whose creator is a member of that community, and the only one I'm aware of whose creator is a woman--writer-director Rama Burshtein, who received an honorable mention for the film at Venice.  Unlike secular-produced representative of this trend, which often focus on characters who transgress the orthodox community's strict rules, usually the ones involving sex--homosexuality in Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open (2009), lesbianism in Avi Nesher's The Secrets (2007), an illicit romance between an orthodox girl and a secular boy in Yossi Somer's Forbidden Love (1999), which combines Romeo and Juliet and The Dybbuk--Fill the Void does not set itself against the conventions and expectations that rule its characters' lives, and in fact works very hard to humanize a worldview that a secular audience could easily be horrified by.  No one in the film ever questions the core assumptions that drive it--that the highest calling for a woman is to be married, and that to fail to do so would be a heartbreaking tragedy; that Yochay can't raise his son without a wife; that it is perfectly natural for very young people to marry someone they don't know at all, and with whom they have never even shaken hands--but neither are these assumptions the only driving force in their lives.  The characters in Fill the Void never buck tradition, but they temper their adherence to it with normal human emotion--love, grief, compassion, and even desire, all of which are delicately and convincingly conveyed through a spare but affecting script and strong performances, particularly from Yaron, Klein, and Sheleg.  Shira's mother meets great resistance in her efforts to bring about the marriage, perhaps most strongly from the men in her community, and Shira is repeatedly assured that the final decision is her own, and that she must choose to marry out of affection, not duty--and it is indeed her actions, at the end of the film, that help bring the marriage about at a point where it seems unlikely.  What's more, Burshtein, who if nothing else constructs her film as a fascinating, and stunningly shot, anthropological window into the world of the ultra-orthodox, often makes that world, or rather the parts of it that Shira moves in, a world of women.  It is through their perspective that the decision whether or not to marry Yochay is discussed, with strong voices heard for and against it, not as a result of male fiat.

    And yet for all that, I found it impossible to watch Fill the Void without feeling a mounting sense of horror at what Shira was doing, and I can't help but wonder whether that horror wasn't at least partially intended by Burshtein.  Certain aspects of the film's depiction of the lives of women in the ultra-orthodox community--the subplot about the unmarried older sister of Shira's friend, who grows more unhappy and more despairing as the younger women around her achieve their life goal; the state of near-nervous collapse that Shira finds herself in as she prepares for her marriage ceremony; the ceremony itself, in which Yochay covers Shira's face not with a veil but with an opaque cloth, as if making her disappear; the film's sudden, ambiguous ending--sent a shudder down my spine.  On the other hand, even if Burshtein intended me to feel that horror, it is also clearly not the only lesson she wants her audience to take away from the film.  The final act of Fill the Void is concerned less with whether Shira and Yochay will marry but with whether Shira can convince others that she wants the marriage for the right reasons (when she first seeks permission from the community's rabbi and tells him that she is agreeing to the marriage out of a sense of duty, he refuses to sanction it).  As much as it seems likely that Shira chooses to marry Yochay because of pressure from her mother, a sense of duty towards her nephew, and fear of becoming unmarriageable, she also seems to feel a genuine attraction to, and desire for, Yochay, whom the film constructs as a sort shtreimel-wearing Heathcliff, all brooding intensity and barely-suppressed passion (the casting of heartthrob Klein in the role doesn't hurt the likelihood of this interpretation).  That Shira wants the marriage with Yochay, and that at least some of her reasons for wanting it are entirely her own, is, by the film's end, no longer in doubt, but this doesn't make the limited role that her community allows her, the all-consuming importance that it places on her marriage, and her innocence and inexperience as she takes this irrevocable plunge, any less terrifying.

    In a way, Fill the Void feels like the Israeli film industry coming full circle--it makes a fine bookend to Dover Kosashvilli's Late Marriage (2001), the film generally credited with jump-starting the industry's stunning revival over the last decade.  In that film, the hero, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazy, perhaps best known today for playing the populist academic Uriel Shkolnik in last year's Footnote), is an unmarried thirtysomething doctoral candidate whose traditional Georgian family are eager to marry him off to a young, wealthy virgin from within their own community, but who has been carrying on an affair with Judith (Ronit Elkabatz), an older divorced single mother.  Zaza is more ambivalent about the marriage he's being pressured into than Shira, and he has more options to refuse his family (who for all their adherence to tradition are significantly less bound by it than the ultra-orthodox in Fill the Void).  And yet their experiences are very similar (both films even feature scenes in which Zaza and Shira "interview" potential matches, sent off alone with great ceremony for a brief, no-touching conversation in which they're to decide the course of their lives), with both characters finding themselves incapable of disentangling themselves from their family and community.  Fill the Void and Late Marriage both end with a wedding that answers the demands of tradition, but neither film is willing to commit to an interpretation, and tell us whether that tradition is going to bolster and strengthen their main character and lead them to happiness, or whether it has just destroyed them.