Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.
Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.
Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.
Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.
The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.
Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.
Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.
Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.
Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.
DC’s efforts to launch a cinematic universe split critical opinion, despite commercial success. Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) maintained dark and gritty tones, in line with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and The Dark Knight Returns (1988). Suicide Squad (2016) balanced wide numbers of characters between an uneven structure, unable to come together. Man of Steel may be the strongest effort, reimagining Superman’s mythology, but with major flaws. Behind failures lie masterpieces: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), Vertigo stories like V for Vendetta (2006). Introduced in Batman v Superman, attending a gala in an elaborate dress, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) charged into battle in the Trinity in the fight against Doomsday.
Since inception, Wonder Woman has been symbolic for young girls and women, central to protest movements, intersecting along lines of feminism. Captain America, in patriotic red white and blue, symbolises the American Dream, but often critiques it, rogue amid the corruption and conspiracy of Nixon and Reagan, or SHIELD and Tony Stark in Civil War (2006-07). Superman, lone-surviving immigrant from Krypton and young boy in rural Smallville, symbolises “truth, justice and the American way”, despite his heritage. Wonder Woman’s costume may be red, white and blue, but she’s Themysciran. Gal Gadot isn’t American either: she’s Israeli and Jewish, outspoken against the actions of Hamas, serving in the Israeli Defence Force, leading to the film’s banning in Lebanon.
The mythical Themyscira, paradise Amazonian home, plays with ancient Greek mythology: an image of waterfalls, ancient stone and luscious greens, shot in southern Italy. Young Diana (Emily Carey) grows up, introducing us to an entire culture beyond the metropolitan Gotham and Metropolis, with a unique culture with accents not out of place within the Mediterranean. However, the film never touches upon Themyscira beyond the film’s first act, leaving open questions around its inhabitants and identity following human intervention.
Diana’s origin combines multiple retellings, shaped by clay by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), a virgin birth without father; in Blood (2011-12), Diana is revealed as Zeus’ daughter, amid confusion around her identity. Diana has an uneasy relationship with Hippolyta: Hippolyta forbids her from becoming an Amazonian warrior, trained instead by aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana undergoes rites of passage of a young adult: meeting stranded American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), working for British intelligence, she defies Hippolyta, taking her ship out into the human world. These conflicts aren’t uncommon: in The Contest (1994-95), dissatisfied with Diana’s inability to reshape the human world of men, Hippolyta relinquishes her title, seeking a more worthy warrior in her place. Themyscira has a conflicted relationship with our own: in Greg Rucka’s run in the mid-00s, Themyscira is a recognised nation state with an embassy in New York, Diana as ambassador, in-line with real-world geopolitics and globalisation. Diana even recently became a symbolic ambassador to the real-world UN.
Through the World War I setting, this duality rises to the fore. In the opening, Diana arrives at the Louvre, examining an image taken in the aftermath of battle in 1918 glimpsed within Batman v Superman, utilising a wartime setting similar to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), transposing the World War II of her introduction in Sensation Comics #1 (1942) to World War I. WWI superheroes have always been retroactive, with Union Jack, introduced in The Invaders #7 (1976), deepening the legacy of Marvel’s universe. Superheroes emerged out of the vigilantes and pulp fiction of the 1930s in the shadow of the Great Depression, yet soon became a propaganda tool supporting national interests against spies, fascists and commies throughout World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The film adapts many elements from Marston’s first few issues, supporting characters like Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and villains like Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), reimagined in her Phantom-esque mask. Nazis became caricatures since WWII propaganda began, sans the uneasy politics of genocide and eugenics. In the alliance system, war is chaos. The centenary, afforded distance from living memory, allows us to reflect upon what the war represented.
Placed in the months before the signing of the armistice and Treaty of Versailles the following year, our protagonists launch into battle in the Western Front. Russia was caught in revolution; the US, having pursued an isolationist policy, joined the war, Steve smuggling information from the Ottoman Empire. The German Empire became increasingly militaristic, seen through the focus upon General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as villain. The “war to end all wars” became a breeding ground for political ideologies as the world tried to rebuild, amid anarchy, fascism and socialism and influenza. As Rüdiger Suchsland argues in Caligari: When Horror Came to Cinema (2014), the war reshaped cinema and art, through Dadaism, expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and surrealism. Wonder Woman reminds us of the devastation: 25 million dead, mothers, children, civilians. The film’s villain is war: Wonder Woman fights against poison gas obliterating the entire world. Her fight is futile: poison gas became a powerful threat through the work of Fritz Haber, its legacy felt through the genocide of the Holocaust and use of chemical weapons within Syria.
For Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a “hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind”. Diana is neutral: although Germany is ostensibly the enemy, she doesn’t take sides. Wonder Woman understands both sides complexly, attempting to find resolution. Through her lasso of truth, shield and bracelets, she never uses guns, a singular force of nature storming through No Man’s Land after a year in trenches without progress. She joins forces with a multi-ethnic group of soldiers, including American Scott Trevor, Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), fez-adorned Arab Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Native American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). In London, we walk past multiple ethnic groups, including Sikhs. Chief embodies the responsibilities of war and its legacy, confessing to Diana that his tribe was decimated by Trevor’s people. Sameer speaks multiple tongues, including Chinese, unable to fulfil his actor dream in wartime.
We see war’s impact through everyday people: Wonder Woman protects a small German village, aghast at starvation and refugees, forced to demolish a church tower. The film implicates the culpability of man, drawing duality between the symbolic Ares and our own free will, responsible for our own destruction. Focusing upon generals, influencing without fighting war, we move beyond presidents and kings and prime ministers to individuals, their own parts to play. Does killing Ares end war? The ‘one man’ theory simplifies war: the deaths of Hussein and Bin Laden positioned as ending the war in the Middle East; Hitler as enchanting dictator, not an ideology of racism and hate. Even in Star Wars, the deaths of Vader and Palpatine didn’t stop the rise of the First Order.
Themyscira embodies duality between the classical war of myths and legends and modern warfare. In an early scene with young Diana, we move within a Renaissance-esque painting as Hippolyta relates history down through ages, telling stories of Ares. Themyscira exists outside of time; its inhabitants have no awareness the war is actually on. Steve’s crashed plane brings human war to a peaceful place. As U-boats approach the island, hidden behind an invisible barrier, Jenkins draws these parallels most clearly, dark smog dissolving into the bright blue ocean. In the direst of times, even paradise is not safe; humanity sees paradise as another place to invade. In Snyder-esque slow motion, Jenkins places us in ancient battle evoking 300 (2007), juxtaposed against modern, mechanised war. Spears slaughter modern troops; Amazonians impacted by bullets amid man’s intervention. Themyscira stands behind fraternity, honour and small, internal conflicts. Modern war, in its global powers and uncertain enemies, is outside these structures. There is no glory as a German agent refuses to face war, swallowing a cyanide capsule.
Ares acts as both symbol of war and embodied god. Never becoming the main villain, he is necessary in a mythological fight between gods, transcending human conflict behind secrecy and hidden identities in his brotherly yet torn relationship with Wonder Woman. In a CGI intensive battle, war engulfed by orange flame, the film becomes its most Snyder, interested in visual spectacle over narrative storytelling, but remains engaging. The film implies Ares’ death ends the war, celebrations in London following the armistice, but this is disingenuous. Months of fighting and real human soldiers and negotiators had to come together first.
Placing Wonder Woman as period piece may seem a distancing measure, avoiding real world politics for escapism, but superheroes always respond to the world around them. Superman, upon introduction in Action Comics #1 (1938), had been a social justice warrior, “an enforcer on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised” rallying against “social injustices” like “poverty, inadequate housing conditions, mobster violence, and corporate and political corruption.” In radio drama Clan of the Fiery Cross (1946), Superman fought the KKK, incorporating “real Klan secrets leaked by Kennedy to expose and ridicule their rituals”. Recent stories like Batman #44 (2015) engage with issues of white violence and police brutality.
Films adaptations like The Dark Knight Rises (2012) show the power of public uprising amid poverty and chaos. In Batman v Superman, the film asks theological and philosophical questions over God and the power and control of superheroes. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008) cannot be detached from Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Wonder Woman cannot be detached from gender politics.
As Jill Lepore explores in The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), Wonder Woman was conceived as a “new type of woman”, who could “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. Creator William Moulton Marston had been in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway, attending talks by Emmeline Pankhurst and suffragist protests as a student. As Lepore argues, the World War I setting “makes a certain chronological sense”, within the Marston family’s admiration of “the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights and birth control”.
Female superhero films have largely failed, with Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) unable to capture the strengths of their characters or explore issues of gender or empowerment. Supergirl (1984) might be the most enjoyable, if only because of the Christopher Reeves series and its 1980s cheesiness. But these films failed because they were bad films. Female characters are left periphery, no matter how interesting their characters are. In animated films like The Killing Joke(2016), DC struggled to present Batgirl’s sexuality in a way that isn’t deeply problematic. However, as Lepore argues, Wonder Woman is not “the Women’s March”, lacking her “American commitments and her feminist cause” as the film seeks universal audiences, positioned as “an implausible post-feminist hero”.
As Diana walks through London, a gown covering her costume, Wonder Woman is forced to dress towards conservative fashion trends, unable to carry sword or shield or expose skin. Looking through outfits in a store, she’s attracted to the most masculine and agile outfits possible to wear in battle, adopting glasses a la Diana, a nurse with her namesake in Sensation Comics #1, whose pseudonym she adopts.
This sequence resembles another in the original comic, as Wonder Woman walks down the high street, passers-by gawking at her immodesty. Were Diana walking down that same street today, she’d be fine in shorts and exposed sleeves. But wardrobe has dominated Wonder Woman’s career. In The New Wonder Woman #178-204 (1968-73), Denny O’Neil disempowered the character, placing her within the modern, groovy fashion of Swinging London.
During the 1970s, experimental artists like Dara Birnbaum, following feminist scholars like Laura Mulvey, criticised media representation of women, remixing images from The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (1975-79). More recently, questions continue to be discussed with Wonder Woman’s quickly reversed costume redesign of armour-covered skin, amid efforts for stronger female characters.
Attending a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, Diana faces patriarchal judgement: she cannot know secrets of war, nor act as distraction to leering, horny ministers. She explains her role to them as his secretary, christened Diana Prince by Steve, constantly told to step back and not fight, decades before women were allowed to serve. Women worked as WAACs, nurses in combat and in munitions factories, but never in front lines. Man’s instinct is to protect women, but in doing so they lose their power.
Etta Candy represents the suffragist movement, wanting to fight for women’s rights, but never too hard. Suffragist movements split between violent and non-violent action; Etta would never chain herself to a railing or set off bombs, despite her beliefs. Women marched on Washington, draped in costumes, flags and shields. In Intolerance (1916), made contemporaneously to the movement, we see early arguments around the right of children, the state and the mother, alongside lines of poverty. Etta as Steve’s secretary is ironic: Wonder Woman became relegated to the secretary for the Justice League in All-Star Comics, unable to join them on international missions. Diana believes Etta’s role amounts to slavery within man’s world, tying to the central ideology that women were “enslaved to men” without the right to vote. According to Lepore, bondage within early issues of Sensation Comics, far from kink and fetish, ties into “the iconography of suffragism, feminism and the early birth control movement”, where women marched in chains as “political theatre”.
Feminism is shifting: women in the US achieved suffrage in 1920 with the 19th amendment; women over 30 in the UK achieved it in 1918. But debates continue on, Wonder Woman hailed as feminist icon in the 1970s in Ms. magazine; the missed opportunity of Roe v Wade; third-wave feminism, between identity politics, issues of sexual abuse and inequality. Through Themyscira, Wonder Woman confronts sexuality and gender, tapping into, as Lepore argues, suffragist ideas from feminist utopian fiction that suggested “amatriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy”, with feminist “obsession with Amazons”.
Themyscira is diverse, between black and white, but its women embody a particular kind of womanhood: largely white, cis, able-bodied, beautiful. Themyscira has no room for Asian women or trans women. The gods protect women, giving them their own island. With the arrival of Steve, Diana deals with masculinity and sexuality. Bathing in a fountain, Diana is confounded by his dick; he brags about size, whilst trying to remain respectful and apologetic to her.
On the boat, Steve doesn’t want to sleep next to her; that’s for marriage. Steve follows a set of ingrained, normative rules already feeling outdated. Diana is sex positive, reading 12 volumes on sex; she understands mechanics, but doesn’t need men. She has an island full of hot women, and her hand. Amid 1950s censorship of comic books, Sensation Comics was “accused of inciting lesbianism”. Who needs marriage? But as Steve confesses, marriages rarely stay together; men find other women. In the aftermath of battle, in snowfall, Steve talks about life in peacetime: having “breakfast”, falling in love, kids and growing old together. Immediately, they acknowledge this as bullshit, taking her up to his room and they embrace, fading to black. Sexuality isn’t linear; some cultures are free, some are more conservative.
Themyscira becomes respite from war for Steve, but he has a duty, making it out alive or not. Gadot and Pine play off each other well; Pine stretches himself beyond his role as Kirk in Star Trek (2009-present) as a dutiful man in war. However, their chemistry never feels romantic. Wonder Woman seems more interested in Sameer; her primary interest is in fighting war. In The First Avenger, we feel Steve and Peggy’s relationship more closely, understanding them as characters and what they stand for, feeling closeness and strength in their relationship. Wonder Woman attempts to manufacture connection through Steve’s watch, as symbolic memento, yet never acquires enough power.
Wonder Woman has a smaller contribution to DC’s cinematic universe than predecessors; Batman v Superman followed each origin, contained within videos on a tablet; the Flash made an unnecessary cameo fighting Boomerang In Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman has some connections, through its opening logo, Wayne Enterprises vans and an email thanking Bruce in the final scene, yet the film is largely disinterested in making Wonder Woman more than it is. Instead, Wonder Woman establishes a somewhat lighter tone, more colourful yet without sacrificing the dark and gritty elements that established this universe. In the lead-up to Snyder and Whedon’s Justice League (2017), Geoff Johns acting as executive producer, DC’s films have a way forward for an entire universe of characters.
It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.
Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).
Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects that “life early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.
The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”.
With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.
The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.
The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.
As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.
As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:
In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.
Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.
The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.
We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.
In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.
In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.
The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.
Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.
The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.
Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.
Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.
Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.
Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. TheMatrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.
At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.
Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.
Kristen Stewart is a joke, forever defined by her stilted acting in Twilight (2008). Twilight is what it is: an adaptation of a YA novel, spanning several fanfic erotic sequels not featuring Kristen Stewart in the Fifty Shades (2014-present) series. Stewart started out as a child actress, appearing in masterpieces like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000). Every child actor has an interesting path. Elle Fanning grew up to be one of the greatest teenage actors around. Macaulay Culkin became Macaulay Culkin. Elijah Wood grew up to be that weird guy in Spy Kids 3-D (2003), Frodo, a serial killer and Dirk Gently’s friend.
Stewart isn’t going to win any Oscars any time soon. But Assayas proves she’s capable, lifting her out of American cinema into French cinema. Casting an American lead, Assayas sacrifices none of his film’s reality in favour of commercial intent, never breaching the film’s internal world. Maureen exists as outsider, with a diasporic American identity. Working for Kyra, she never fits into the Parisian world, with her old knitted sweaters or addiction to her cellphone. As a personal shopper, Maureen is continually alone, absorbing other people’s identities in shallowness and materialism, spending thousands of euros on clothes that aren’t hers. She follows her late brother Lewis’ French lifestyle because of a pact they made. As she tries on a sparkly dress, Maureen is caught between taking an identity which isn’t hers and the sheer joy of rebellion.
Personal Shopper captures a sense of modern job insecurity and globalisation. Maureen’s boyfriend, Gary, works in the Middle East, seen only through Skype calls. Maureen must travel across Europe between London and Milan, never able to enjoy travel. It’s a job, but never a rewarding one. In a film like Only God Forgives (2013), Ryan Gosling’s insertion into Thailand’s culture as an expat felt forced, as though our only way to relate is through a white figure. Here, cultural conflict is central to the narrative.
Personal Shopper’s genre is difficult to classify. In part, it is a horror film. As Maureen explores Kyra’s apartment, it becomes a haunted house, like the gothic horror of the 1800s or a female-centric film like The Innocents (1961). Personal Shopper avoids representing its ghosts as the goofy cartoons of Ghostbusters (1984), but returns a sense of the unknown beyond clichés. Assayas’ ghosts are a spectre and trace of the past, an invisible presence caught between two realms of existence not immediately discernible. Assayas avoids the well-trodden tropes of gusts of wind or slamming doors, never falling for jump scares.
Maureen carries a self-awareness of the genre she exists within, akin to the awareness of genre trappings in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Maureen wants to be a strong, independent woman, telling her invisible stalker she hates horror films, where the helpless female character must avoid a male murderer. As she finds the body in the apartment, covered in blood, Maureen must embody this role, caught between the fear of the messages and her own independence. The camera moves through the corridors of the hotel as though in Steadicam, like the eeriness of the Overlook in The Shining (1980). As she is questioned by police, devolving into a cliché of the detective genre, Maureen finds these roles inescapable.
Personal Shopper’s horror is not in its ghosts or serial killers, but in its technology. Cinema, after all, is technology in itself. Often, films like Unfriended (2014) and Cyberbully (2015) have tried to tap into the internet as horror, failing to feel realistically terrifying, playing paranoia entirely ineffectively. Technology is so ingrained within our everyday life it feels difficult to critique without sounding out-of-touch or conservative. But technology is something we should be skeptical of, thanks to writers like Evgeny Morozov and documentarians like Adam Curtis. Technology has restructured social interaction, political engagement, working life, the news industry and so on, placing big data within corporations and governments. Anti-terrorism and internet security adverts may seem melodramatic, yet there are genuine fears.
I cannot control my phone. As I type up my notes for this review, Google voice command activates out of nowhere. Trying to listen to The Eclipse Viewer, it lowers the volume to 0. It skips to the next episode. My phone calls home, with no reason why.
Assayas tries to capture how overwhelming this all is. As Maureen attempts to relax and sketch, she’s interrupted by the blare of Gary on Skype, unable to ignore. In one scene, she attempts to ask a question, caught between a multi-person business call. There is no escape.
In his excellent video essay Smartphones in Cinema and TV – A Missed Opportunity?, Luís Azevedo questions how smartphones affects narrative and cinematic form, creating a sense of distance beyond our instinct to present text messages as a visual aesthetic as utilised by series like Sherlock (2010-present). Rather than embed technology in the frame, in the desktop documentary form used by video essayists like Kevin B. Lee, Assayas shows us technology as something we see on a screen through our own eyes. Assayas never aestheticises, but shows Gary’s Skype call continually breaking up.
Maureen’s iPhone, an everyday object, becomes something she fears. Like the emotionless computer voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Maureen receives texts from a stranger, conveying no emotion in their delivery to discern tone or meaning. Assayas never attempts to speed this process up, creating sheer tension out of sending and reception.
As she questions who is sending the texts – a friend, the ghost of Lewis? – Assayas never reveals the sender. In its anonymity, the phone receives new power. Maureen experiences the fears of many women – unwanted texts, stalkers, creepers sending dickpics – becoming a psychological fear. The sender pretends to be in the same space as her on the Eurostar, with nothing saying otherwise. But her curiosity must be met. In London, trying her dress on, Maureen instinctively grabs the phone. Her boundaries break down: she sends the sender a photo of her in the dress, an artificial sense of trust built through repetition.
Assayas uses technology in an expository function, to explain information. The phone becomes a manifestation of Maureen’s internal monologue, in anxieties and desires, becoming a voice on her shoulder telling her to try Kyra’s dress on. The phone becomes her closest confidant, to sleep beside and voice her thoughts to, as though the words will dissipate with no tangible connection to the real world. Technology is a tool: we see Maureen’s process of researching Hilma af Klint on her phone on the metro (before buying a physical art book), or watching a 1960s TV movie about Victor Hugo’s spiritualism on YouTube after her friend’s suggestion. Assayas connects these scenes, as the video plays on with no temporal or spatial constraints, moving between locations. Rather than unnecessary quirk, these elements become essential to advancing the narrative.
Assayas uses these technological mediums to connect us to our understanding of spiritualism. Spiritualism is directly tied to advancement of technology, through the party tricks that emerged with the advancement of electrical telegraphy in the 1850s. Assayas moves beyond the crystal balls, Ouija boards and campy horror to ground Maureen and her brother Lewis as mediums within our contemporary context, helping us understand spiritualism as a legitimate belief system. Despite the advancement of science and technology, faith and spirituality are going nowhere; they lose none of their power. Religion may seem dead, but it’s not.
Recently, I lost a friend.
I only met him a few times. But it still affects me; I must still come to terms with it, and question where his soul resides now. Assayas captures a search for meaning in the aftermath of a death. Maureen’s relationship with Lewis, dying of a heart condition they both share, creates a symbiotic blood tie between the two. Maureen follows in his footsteps, carrying an innate sense of her own mortality as she reconciles her beliefs, even in weakness. She holds onto the smallest chance, because it is a chance. Assayas depicts her desire to find peace and faith, yet no answers are forthcoming. Her friend attempts to swiftly get over the loss of Lewis, finding a new boyfriend, but we see an unspoken sense of repression: she can’t come to terms with his passing, even though she tries to.
Assayas’ ghostly spectre is at its most powerful here. Through a breaking glass, we infer a ghostly presence. Maureen tries to find scientific justification, surmising the glass broke some other way. But she knows her instinct is true. In the final scene, Maureen travels to the Middle East, and is haunted once more. In the film’s final lines, she asks:
Is it you, Lewis? Or is it just me?
The film fades to white (as opposed to black), as Assayas gives no answer.
Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:
[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.
Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.
Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.
Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead(1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.
But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a “creative feeling” of “freedom” in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.
Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.
Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.
Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.
The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.
Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet(1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.
Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of “the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.
Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.
As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.
Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.
Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.
Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).
Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:
[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.
But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.
Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.
As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.
Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.
With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.
2016 has seen a strong offering of female-centric narratives. But does a female-centric narrative immediately qualify as feminist? Hidden Figures and 20th Century Women empower, whilst I, Olga Hepnarova and Jackieapproach trauma and mental health issues without resorting to melodrama. Some from female voices, like Baden Baden, Toni Erdmann and Raw, allow an honest approach to female sexuality and identity. Yet as Angelica Jade Bastién argues in The Outline, as much as representation should be celebrated, we should remain critical before hailing everything as feminist. At the same time, we should question what feminism means, especially among trans (and non binary) exclusionary communities.
To entrust a female-centric narrative to Paul Verhoven opens questions. Verhoven is a provocateur, eroticising female bodies and sexualities in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). Verhoven has license to tell the narratives he wants to. But he also doesn’t. His perspective, as male gaze, will never be the same as a female perspective, never knowing the everyday, subliminal manifestations of sexism. Verhoven has power to abuse. In her video essay Consent in Cinema, Ivana Brehas questions Sharon Stone’s genital exposure in Basic Instinct, filmed without consent or preparation.
To depict women in film walks a complicated tightrope. As sexualised heroine? As chick flick/rom com office worker pining over men? Sexual trophy? Victim? The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) invoke rape and trauma as both exploitation and female empowerment – fantasy for the male gaze, or feminist wish fulfilment? Fatal Attraction (1987) presents Alex, as victim of mental health issues and depression, as femme fatale and murderer to be tamed. The films of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma offer superficial critiques of femininity, whilst conforming to negative stereotypes. Serial killers becomes otherised as creepy guys in the shadows, whose actions can be excused through mental health issues.
Verhoven never depicts Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) rape as eroticised or explicit; Elle is not pornography. There may be an occasional flash of a nipple, but Verhoven doesn’t glorify. But it remains impossible to watch: how can one voyeuristically place eye on screen as a woman is victimised and abused? Verhoven still otherises the rapist: though we discover his identity later on, he becomes defined by nothingness, dressed in black leather fetish wear and ski mask; we know only his eyes. Verhoven attempts to subvert the tropes of the female rape-revenge fantasy, and question his own culpability in representing women on screen, yet his gaze does not go away. As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker:
[Verhoven] displays no imagination because he’s uninterested in Michèle except as a tool for his problem set, for his message mechanism, for his facile issue-mongering, issue-muddying provocation.
Rape is not uncommon, but institutionally and structurally common. Criminal wrongdoing becomes excused because of alcohol, or marriage, or the provocation of a dress, or lack of pushback. Rapists remain venerated as movie stars and YouTubers, their accusers met with suspicion. For male and queer victims of sexual abuse, these facts are made more invisible. Meanwhile, rapists like Brock Turner are allowed to have prison sentences reduced to 3 months, or never charged at all. The bankrupt Detroit has only begun to process a backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits dating back to the nineties.
Rape happens behind closed doors, between the sheets, in locker rooms, in prisons, in churches, in refugee camps, in dorms, in back alleys, in three-thousand-dollar per night luxury hotel suites. It happens between the powerful and the weak, between men and women, men and boys, husbands and wives, adults and children, strangers and lovers, between ordinary people like you and me. You might say you’re just having a little fun, horsing around, hooking up. Sometimes there’s a knife or gun. Sometimes there’s a kiss. It isn’t so easy to tell lie from truth, intention from mistake.
When I was fifteen, I was raped. I never knew it at the time. I was never assaulted, never screamed, he was never a stranger. I defended it, bragged about it to friends, accepted it as my first time. I felt no power to say no, for fear of offending him. I felt no power to speak to friends about it, fearing stirring the pot. It took me years to acknowledge it as rape; he never allowed me to consent.
Michèle responds to her assault casually, moving on with life. She is already empowered, working as CEO of a video game company in a male-dominated environment. We see her discouragement from going to police. In a restaurant, Michèle finds confidence to matter-of-factly confess to family and friends her rape. Immediately, they insist she go to police, never realising everything is stacked against the victim. Why become spectacle to media attention and tabloid headlines, investing time and energy in a futile court case? Michèle’s fears are justified, as the daughter of imprisoned serial killer Georges Leblanc: an event she maintains some responsibility for, still sensationalised in TV documentaries. Michèle becomes subject to the sins of the father, unable to escape his legacy. Yet these issues affect all women, not just sufferers of childhood trauma.
Michèle’s harassment may seem unbearable, yet women bear it every single day, from unsolicited dickpics to eroticising comments from strangers. Michèle receives threatening text messages from her neighbour, and returns home to find her house broken into, her bed covered in a stranger’s cum.
Verhoven complicates Michèle’s rape, developing a sadomasochistic relationship with her rapist, leaving open questions of empowerment. Again, this is not uncommon. Maintaining a friendship with a rapist happens. To be raped more than once happens. Verhoven argues to Little White Lies that “the moment she discovers who the rapist is, American cinema and philosophy dictates it would have to be a revenge movie.” Yet many women are never afforded the power to assert revenge.
Though Verhoven does little to indict the power of cinema in asserting negative images of women, he finds another target: video games, using it as a “perfect metaphor for complicity in screen violence”. The games Michèle develop conform to the male gaze, placing the viewer inside a Cthulhu-esque rape, controlled by the (male) gamer. Michèle asks the developers to make it more orgasmic, complicit within her own oppression. Michèle is not a feminist, but acts within the parameters set by a male-dominated industry. The sequence is remixed by a male co-worker, editing her face onto the victim’s avatar, highlighting the contradiction that Michèle remains blind to. When Michèle bribes a techy co-worker to discover the culprit, she finds he was the culprit all along.
Michèle is not innocent, or even a nice character. She drives her car into a neighbouring vehicle, in lieu of an empty space. She repeatedly rejects her mother’s potential partners. Michèle weaponises her sexuality in self-defence, yet this is not enough. She trains herself at the shooting range with a gun; keeps a hammer next to her pillow; carries pepper spray; looks in a store to protect herself. Unable to escape the incident, her memories are visceral: she fantasises about what she could have done, imagining crushing his skull in. Her cat, just as the viewer, watches on, complicit in the male gaze.
But Michèle is never afforded the possibility of her fantasy. Vincent attacks him, crushing his skull in as in her fantasy, affording the heroic rape-revenge scene to a man, manifesting patriarchal power systems more deeply.
Despite the trauma, Michèle does not close into a shell, but asserts sexual autonomy. We see her pressured into jerking off a co-worker in the office out of the blue, finishing in a bin. Michèle never becomes submissive, asserting power, in spite of male presence. As she spies through her window a la Rear Window (1954), she masturbates; spends time in the bath; masturbates a guy at the dinner table with a foot; maintains an affair with a friend’s partner, meeting together at a hotel. This honesty evokes the honesty of female sexuality in Toni Erdmann, where we see Winfried take pleasure in instructing her partner to climax over a petit fours.
At points, Elle has the vibe of a 1970s sex comedy, with the mundanity and ridiculousness of the sexual lives of Michèle, her mum and her friends. But sex comedy largely privileges male voices and female objectification, disseminating problematic ideologies, than allowing feminist voices. Elle struggles to become entertainment; like with the child abuse scandal of The Hunt (2012), the viewer is left with a constant sense of unease. In spite of its efforts at female empowerment, it remains problematic. The fact Elle lost an Oscar is a promising sign.
Universal seem to be undergoing a horror renaissance, thanks to some surprising hits by Blumhouse – Split, a not terrible M Night Shyamalan film, whilst Get Out, produced on a budget of $5 million and making over $150 million at the box office, has shown issues of race and privilege can be explored to large audiences. Where other studios rely on tentpoles, Universal latches on to other voices, like Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols, and, apparently, a French film from a first-time director, shown in Cineworlds across the country. Perhaps the horror film, in light of other international hits like Ringu (1998), is best at crossing cultural boundaries.
Raw is many things – a horror film, cannibalism film, coming of age film. Cinema struggles to depict university experience, presented as continuum, identical to adult life or high school life, rarely occupying a space in-between. In Boyhood (2014), university represents optimism as an endpoint to youth, whilst in Starter for 10 (2006), the conflict of university is reduced to a TV gameshow. Meanwhile, the CW teenager exists as unrealistically hot or unrealistically sexual, having experiences most people in their 20s never have. But university is complex, a period of identity formation and personal growth. Through first year, my entire self changed: changing priorities and interests, new bonds; I came to terms with my asexuality and, unlike Justine’s journey, I stopped eating meat. But I had to go through a lot of shit to get there. Raw reveals university for what it actually is: institutionalised initiations and hazings, used to justify physical harm and sexual assault; freshers pressured with alcohol and sexuality and no choice but to conform, whilst lecturers openly favour certain students whilst disregarding others.
The veterinary school of Raw is a construct: as she tells Little White Lies, Ducournau sought the concrete, brutalist image of the major campuses of American universities than French campuses. The film seeps of style: bloodbaths, paint-drenched sex, parties in abandoned buildings, neon clubbing, an electro soundtrack. Ducournau uses long takes, throwing the audience into a car crash on a road or the campus’ students walking around early in their PJs with little prior context. Yet Raw carries a degree of authenticity: Ducournau is a young, first time director, not someone twice her age looking back nostalgically. Garance Marillier brings youth to Justine: cast into the unknown, about to graduate high school and go to college herself, unable to invoke personal experience.
Ducournau speaks to a specific experience: a female perspective, reclaiming the dudebro masculinity of films like Animal House (1978). For Ducournau, to invoke the female gaze is an “instant reflex”; unlike the rape scenes of Elle, where female sexuality is presented through male perspective. Raw is filled with naked bodies: Justine’s underwear, her naked chest as her body is under attack by a rash, showering, pissing on the roof with Alexia; the casual freedom of clubbing, as bodies become more exposed. But Ducournau refuses to titillate, avoiding the eroticism of Brian De Palma. In one scene, Justine, adorned with dress and lipstick, makes out with her own reflection, as we hear the lyrics:
First seduction lesson:
Be an educated slut
Make fun of boys
Ride ‘em like horses
Find oral sex amusing
Just don’t call it
But when it comes down to it:
Be the best at it!
As Ducournau points out in a Q&A with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the song is by feminist sisters Orties, taking clichés of rap and “mak[ing] it their own”, treating men the way “men talk about women”. In a broader sense, Raw does the same. Justine undergoes rites of passage, entering the film virginal and innocent, having never eaten flesh, or tasted human flesh; she’s even smoking cigarettes by the end. As Ducournau acknowledges to Little White Lies, “losing your virginity is unfortunately always associated with something very sacred, very important.” Sexuality never becomes romantic, grounded in friendships and needs, animalistic as extension of cannibalistic desire. When Justine is pressured to fuck a stranger during a party, we see her hesitation. Ducournau abstracts this sexuality, bathing both in yellow and green paint as though it were an experimental art piece, yet speaks to the reality of our culture of coercion.
Justine’s cannibalistic relationship with her sister Alexia feels like a trope, evoking the vampiric sisterhood of Byzantium (2013), the lesbianism of Carmilla (1872), or as Ducournau points out in a Q&A, the classical sibling rivalries of Biblical stories and Grecian myths. We don’t learn their relationship immediately: we’re introduced to Justine in the car with her parents, deploying information gradually before learning of Alexia’s cannibalism. Indeed, Alexia wasn’t Justine’s sister within early drafts, yet sisterhood brings an unconditional blood bond beyond expositional friendship conflicts, with a lifelong history to a time before.
Alexia, as older student and sibling, pressures Justine to conform: follow hazing rituals, go clubbing, drink heavily, have sex. Alexia encourages Justine to perform to the male gaze: she can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt, must wear a dress, bathe herself in make-up, “Brazilian” any sign of vaginal hair. In the process of transformation to cannibalism, Justine asserts her sexual autonomy: it’s her vagina, not to be circumcised, slicing off Alexia’s finger with a pair of scissors in the process.
Justine’s relationship with her roommate Adrien is more complex, complicated by his friendship with Alexia. Adrien introduces himself to Justine with his homosexuality, using university as his sexual liberation after twenty years in the closet; within minutes of his introduction, he’s making out with a dude whilst clubbing. Later, Justine returns home at night, walking in on Adrien receiving oral. But this isn’t treated as a joke; Justine closes the door, as he whimpers on, still tempted to listen in.
Ducournau invokes Adrien as an identifying character that refuses a heteronormative male gaze, disallowing us a proxy for sexual gaze to Justine’s sexuality. As she points out in the Q&A, were Adrien presented as heterosexual, the viewer would perceive a sexual tension within their relationship. Justine and Adrien do have sex, highlighting the complicated nature of their relationship and perceptions around homosexuality: flexible, or as though it doesn’t “count” because he lacks attraction. But needs and desires transcend genders, identities and labels, just as asexuals can have sex without attraction. Adrien jerks off to porn, then makes a mistake to satisfy her needs over his own. Where does friendship begin and sexuality end? Justine becomes enraptured by sex, whilst Adrien repeatedly tells her to stop, explaining his issues to her the next morning in class.
To have sexuality this complicated is refreshing. My sexual identity in first year seems completely apart from my identity now: questioning my homosexuality and attraction to other genders; feeling obligated to have sex, whilst dismissed for not wanting to when everyone around me seemed to be screwing; drunkenly sleeping with people I should never have seen in the first place. Adrien and Justine eventually go back to each other, because sexuality is never simple.
Using cannibalism to explore issues of female identity and sexuality draws parallels to The Neon Demon, where cannibalism acts as metaphor for how ideals of beauty (literally) eats one alive. But cannibalism inescapably ends up asking questions; in The Lost City of Z, cannibalism becomes associated with the primitivism, whilst The Hills Have Eyes(1977) invokes similar imagery. Cannibalism asks questions of where we set our socially accepted rules. If it’s okay to eat chicken eggs, why isn’t it acceptable to eat human uteruses? If animal flesh is okay, why isn’t human? Are we truly ordained by God with dominion? Justine asks similar questions based on her vegetarianism, before the upbringing constructed by her parents unravels. Her conversion is gradual: pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney during initiation; stealing a burger from the lunch counter; eating shawarma with Adrien, as though it were the postcredits scene to The Avengers (2012).
Raw reveals the horror of life as a veterinary student, and, by extension, ethical questions of animal testing and the meat industry. Is Justine eating a human cadaver in the morgue at a party or finger food as though it were a chicken leg the real horror? Ducournau is confrontational, using long takes to reveal cows and horses treated as objects to be killed and dissected; taxidermied animals displayed in basements; the family dog put down for fear of developing a taste for human flesh.
Justine’s journey is inversion, using conversion to carnivorism as metaphor. The first time my revulsion to meat manifested, I was drunk. Sat in an unreputable fast food place past midnight with raving socialists, some film about communism in an Eastern European country playing in the background on late night television. A visceral moment and memory: eating meat without any semblance of sustenance, for the sake of eating. This was my shawarma scene, though it took me many months to decide completely.
Raw may have its share of horror tropes, like the creepy old guy in hospital the night after Alexia’s accident, yet the greatest horror comes from our own reality. Raw speaks to our realities of sexuality, university life and the animal industry where it exists within the echelons of the greatest of coming-of-age films.
Todd Haynes’ filmography splits between two themes: a deep connection to a musical artist and their hidden backstory, or a destructive suburban life, presented from a feminist perspective. Superstar, long suppressed, reliant on bootleg copies, brings all these themes into focus in its short 40 minute runtime.
In an interview around the release of I’m Not There. (2007), Haynes spoke of the process of acquiring consent of the artist for his projects – received from Bob Dylan for I’m Not There., rejected by David Bowie for Velvet Goldmine (1998), and sued by Richard Carpenter for Superstar. Though these films are about real historical figures, they were never about the real figures themselves, but something larger: a mythology; a reflection of time and culture, that could be expressed through an analogue, but not the person themselves.
Haynes both speculates and projects: in I’m Not There., Haynes reaches the ultimate level of subversion, embodying different Dylans reflecting different eras, repurposing artistic influences as analogues. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), poet under interrogation; Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), black kid blues singer travelling across the Midwest in the back of train carriages; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), documentary subject and gospel singer; Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), James Dean-esque rebel without a cause; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), moving across the London art scene a la Dont Look Back (1967); and Billy McCarty (Richard Gere), rural, turn-of-the-century outlaw.
In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes folds multiple 1970s music personalities into one to create an analogous portrait of David Bowie through Brian Slade (John Rhys Meyers), and his relationship with musician Curt (Ewan McGregor), combining the soundtrack with the music of Brian Eno and shifting through musical eras from mods and rockers to glam rock. Beyond the image of the static artist, Haynes’ artist becomes fluid: a performative identity. Haynes never seeks to create the authentic biopic: only the sense of one.
To Haynes, the musician is central to the construction of his identity: in Velvet Goldmine, Arthur (Christian Bale) becomes analogous to Haynes, embracing his sexuality through Slade’s music. Haynes never directed Superstar through sinister intentions: first and foremost, it is grounded in an appreciation of the music itself. Superstar could never exist without the Carpenters’ music, recreated in stage performances. Haynes speaks of his appreciation of Karen Carpenter himself in a documentary segment, credited as DJ Todd Donovan, expressing what was so radical about her work.
As listeners to an artist’s work, we are never aware of their authentic lives: only the sense, represented within lyrics, newspaper headlines, interviews and speculation. In Velvet Goldmine, the private persona reveals Slade’s queer identity; here, Karen’s private persona reveals her struggle with anorexia. Objectively, Superstar is a biopic about Karen Carpenter. Yet where Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. acted as a retrospective celebration of the musical scene of the 1960s and 70s, Superstar is more the story of a woman’s struggle with anorexia, though embodied through the persona of Carpenter.
Karen Carpenter’s name may not carry the same cultural recognition today as it had in 1988, but the narrative of the vulnerable female celebrity recurs throughout culture, from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse, whose struggle with drug addiction became posthumously represented in Amy (2015) through archival footage. Yet we do not understand their personal struggles through a reality, we understand it through a constructed image. As Lindsay Ellis explains in her Loose Canon analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s representation within culture, Monroe became more a symbol than a person: a brand and a piece of intellectual property.
Haynes juxtaposes Karen’s musical performances with her personal struggle. As a cultural icon celebrated by Nixon, Karen feels the weight of representing positive American values. Singing about being “on top of the world” becomes ironic: she is in her depths. In the final scene, Karen’s music coalesces together as collage, removed from comprehension as her bodily self degrades.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Haynes is able to communicate emotion through dolls. Haynes simultaneously saves his budget whilst presenting a heavily cited influence on body image – the slender, impossible body perpetuated by Barbie. As the film progresses, we see Karen’s body become slenderer and slenderer – just as the ideal body size decreases as the years and decades pass.
Haynes accepts the limitation of low-budget filmmaking and uses it to his advantage, never losing anything in the process: he understands composition, uses period-appropriate sets, understands how to use colour (as so beautifully shown in Far from Heaven(2002)), lights every scene perfectly, understands editing. Haynes is no amateur: he isn’t a 15 year old directing an Action Figure Adventure. Haynes recreates Karen’s musical performances, depicting her in the recording studio, or in a black TV studio draped in colourful lights. Haynes doesn’t need to show a studio audience; the performance conveys enough. Yet in bootleg VHS form, Superstar becomes defined by its lo-fi nature.
In part, the film takes on the form an essay film, presenting historical context (the TV plays in the background of the family home, with news reports about the riots and revolutions of the 1960s and the Nixon administration) alongside propositions and arguments, examining the Carpenters’ place in American society and the rise of anorexia, illustrated through scenes. Haynes places information around anorexia in the form of expositional title cards, whilst his documentary-style footage acts as a source to be analysed.
When we were taught about anorexia and bulimia in high school, it never felt like it was going to achieve much. Eating disorders were as badly taught as sex education was in the same classes, unable to communicate how widespread rape is and how consent is misunderstood, exempted from queer narratives in favour of the dominant heterosexual one. Anorexia was taught in a collection of testimonials presented on a page, never presented as a real, tangible thing, treating male anorexia as uncommon and an afterthought. Its sufferers were never living, breathing humans, not acknowledging that many of the people in the room may also come to suffer, or have suffered, from it.
Through the character of Karen, Haynes presents scenes that may feel familiar. Karen feels the pressures of being a public media personality, encouraged to experiment with diets, like the Stillman diet, in order to lose weight, because a columnist described her as “chubby”. These pressures are only amplified today, through constant comment from sexist Daily Mail paparazzi shoots and social media, or the edited instincts of Photoshop. Karen finds restaurant and family meals difficult, refusing to eat from her plate as Richard asks her to just take a bite. Karen’s revulsion to food becomes the enemy; in a disjuncture edit, food is shot in stark monochrome as though it were a 1950s horror film. Haynes’ editing is subversive and experimental, showing the constantly decreasing weight on the scales, lips moving, plates being replaced and taken away, to depict a indescribable relationship with anorexia.
Haynes implicates a number of pressures: the Ex-Lax pills promise an easy fix and obsession, only servicing consumer culture in a culture of overabundance. Similarly, when Karen reaches 108 pounds, her family toasts her progress – only making Karen feel like the process will be easy; recovery becomes just as dangerous as the condition alone. When Karen confides in her dietician over the telephone, she feels unable to progress through a “long, hard battle” that will last several years.
Haynes grounds these pressures within the suburban home of the latter half of the 20th century. In the opening sequence, the camera pans through a suburban neighborhood, until focusing upon the Carpenter household. Through the production design, Haynes recreates an authentic image of the 1970s household. The suburban home as a constructed self-destructive prison within society to a female protagonist saw Carol develop chemical sensitivity in Safe (1995), Cathy’s socially taboo relationship with Raymond and her husband Richard’s queer sexuality in Far from Heaven, and Carol’s secret relationship with Therese in Carol (2015). Here, Haynes implicates the overprotective family: Karen’s mother, Agnes, believes she must be protected by living at home, away from a lifestyle of drugs, though Karen is in her 20s. She becomes imprisoned by her own family, only to develop a dependence on an entirely legal drug.
Yet this suburban lifestyle exists because of the era it exists within. Through exposition, Haynes links the post-war end of rationing, bringing about the plentiful availability of food, to the rise of anorexia. Karen experiences the pressures of femininity – as a woman with a career, she feels the pressures to look good that many men do not experience. In exposition, Haynes describes anorexia as a rejection of the “doctrines of femininity”, in line with how Susan Bordo described anorexia as a resistance to cultural norms and a rebellion against femininity in Unbearable Weight (1993).
Karen wants agency over her music career, social circles and her body, yet encounters continual obstacles. She declares she will move away from home to undergo her treatment, yet encounters resistance from her parents. Undergoing the treatment, she feels “more in control than ever”, yet still does not have full agency.
Haynes’ editing adopts the structure of a music documentary, combining montages of remixed archival footage, animated newspaper headlines, news reports on anorexia’s effects, and vox pop interviews with people on the street. In I’m Not There., documentary became a central part of the narrative: we learn of Jack Rollins’ life through documentary extracts, interviewing family and past collaborators, with archival footage of Rollins receiving an award and performing at a church presented with the benefit of hindsight. In the sections focusing on Jude Quinn, we become aware of the unseen observer, D.A. Pennebaker, documenting the events seen in Dont Look Back (though the timeframe of events is rearranged), reinforced through cinéma-vérité-esque monochrome cinematography. Haynes becomes interested in telling multiple narratives, rather than relying upon a single source.
Superstar should not officially exist, buried through lawsuits intended to protect Karen’s legacy. The film never seeks to present the official narrative of Karen’s career or relationship with anorexia. Taken as a precursor to Haynes’ later film work, Superstar is an essential watch, often uneasy and depressing, yet no less powerful.
Around the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a Twitter debate seemed to rage around the right over the politicising of Star Wars. #DumpStarWars seemed slightly ridiculous, but I wonder how the same people might respond to Hidden Figures. The very existence of the film’s protagonists is a political act. Though I’m slightly disappointed the Screen Unseen wasn’t Jackie, Hidden Figures has similarities: it creates a new narrative of the 1960s, recontextualising the dominant male narrative as a female narrative.
Nearly five decades after Apollo 11, space cinema continues to inspire. The fact we sent man to the moon in a vessel is remarkable. NASA’s funding may be a struggle; we may not be on Mars yet; but the arc of history is slow.
We sent man to the moon because of the calculations of black women working at the Langley Research Center in a segregated state. That itself is perhaps more remarkable.
Like Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) attempting to comprehend the heavily redacted document given to her, we must navigate between the lines in history to find forgotten voices. Alongside 12 Years a Slave (2013), Moonlightand Fences, more African American-led narratives are being brought to the screen, often led by black producers, cutting across white cultural hegemony.
Hidden Figures feels like progress.
The Help(2011) may have created a strong portrait of African-American segregation in Mississippi, but it was ultimately a white narrative, filtered through the perspectives of Skeeter (Emma Stone) and a white writer and director. The Dish (2000) illuminated the unheard voices of Apollo 11, but those unheard voices were white Australian men. Often, mainstream black narratives have a tendency to sanitise themselves; in Red Tails (2012), we learn of the Tuskegee Airmen’s involvement in WWII, yet the film exempts itself from depicting strong racial resentment and controversial politics of the period.
In the backdrop of a Trump administration so vitriolic to the existence of minorities and women, this is exactly the narrative we need. The Help still clung onto a post-racial present where we have cured racism, decades after the demise of segregation. Hidden Figures has sympathetic white characters – but as the minority, not the rule, in a world dominated by entrenched racism and segregation. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gives leniency and the benefit of the doubt to Katherine, but she is still granted agency within her own narrative. The late John Glenn (Glen Powell) stages an unintentional war against the minimisation of black women in NASA, shaking our protagonists’ hands amid press coverage on the runway against the instincts of everyone else, whilst granting Katherine a new job to double check the stats before he launches off into space. Harrison and Glenn never overshadow the narrative: it is not theirs to have; Glenn’s story was already told in The Right Stuff (1983).
Working as human computers in NASA, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) are never seen as people – they’re the disembodied voice of Siri, able to fit in your pocket, attending to one’s every need, stripping them of any personality or humanity. As women, they may never be considered fit for the workplace. As black women, they may never be considered as fully people. They become trash, equal to a stack of their work stuck in the trashcan by Al.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), humanity only launched into space because the first ape threw the first bone in combat; here, the agent of progress is a stick of chalk, transitioning between bone and spacecraft as Al hands Katherine the chalk as though from God to Adam in The Creation of Adam (1512). Our protagonists are not just black women – they’re mathematicians. Culturally, we celebrate the male genius, hailing the efforts of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). That is not to say we shouldn’t hail the efforts of a schizophrenic, or a gay man screwed over by his country – but to tell young black girls that they can change history, and be launched off in a rocket ship to outer space, is very powerful indeed.
Like the technological scepticism of an Adam Curtis documentary, the enemy of the film is IBM, attempting to murder our protagonists just as HAL did in 2001. Hidden Figures, set in 1961, exists in a transitory window between human computers and digital ones: yet as the film makes clear, the digital computer can never be depended upon in isolation. The women under the tutorage of Dorothy Vaughn must cannibalise themselves in service of the machine, working overtime to facilitate the launch of the IBMs, eliminating their own job security. Where in The Help black narratives were only allowed to be told because Skeeter was ‘generous’ enough to publish them, Katherine is constantly split between crediting herself as co-author on documents only to have them rejected, or erasing her own existence from history.
Looking back on the 1960s, its easy to focus attention on one paradigm over another: on one side, social reforms, NASA, culture, fashion and LSD; on another, nuclear annihilation, systemic racism, Vietnam and assassinations. NASA is defined by astronauts, flags, the dream of Kennedy and the war against Russia, removed from the context of segregation. High school never taught us how segregation played out, only a century after emancipation, as a handful of states refused to follow the Supreme Court’s mandate.
Here, we see the fringes of wider battles of the Civil Rights Movement – on television, we see coverage of a racist bus bombing; Katherine feels distraught at her kids seeing this, but her partner Jim insists that they must watch, and understand what it means to be black in the United States. Our protagonists walk past a race riot as police intervene, batons in hand. We never see the beatings play out; we never see any lynchings. The N-word is never spoken. But this is not the film’s focus: it’s a PG rated film about NASA.
Racism manifests in subtle ways: where The Help presented going to a segregated bathroom as painful, deemed an ‘unclean’ act, here it is amplified, as Katherine takes a 40 minute walk across the NASA campus, folders of calculations in hand, to go to the solitary colored bathroom. Elevated to working in the office, Katherine becomes subject to the disbelief of white male co-workers, defined as a spectacle, her colourful dress drowning out an office of white shirts and black ties. It is a joy that, unlike The Help, Hidden Figures devotes so much of its runtime to making white people uncomfortable. Even when Katherine is granted the privilege to attend a board meeting, treated with some level of respect, her calculations are met not with applause but jokes. The frame minimises Katherine’s role, blocked out of view by Al, impossible to be seen.
It persists through complacency: Katherine, Dorothy and Mary may be the best of the best working in NASA, but to the average white man, there is no material benefit nor payrise to showing basic respect and human decency. Paul (Jim Parsons) refuses to ever go against protocol in a workplace which has never employed women in major roles, leading to consternation with Al and a refusal to enact change. Yet as Katherine makes abundantly clear to him, “there’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth.”
As a woman in the workplace, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) shows how deeply the status quo penetrates. Gender equality acts as a form of politeness when objections to black women working in NASA are raised, softened to being because of their gender, even perpetuated within the black community by Jim. Vivian, blind to the systemic racism within herself, never embraces femininity nor treats Katherine as an equal or friend; becoming an extension of the white patriarchy, complicit within their injustices, never advocating for her own struggle for gender equality.
Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish veteran of the Holocaust working on the project, having survived pogroms and extermination, symbolises the hope of the future for African Americans. Jewish Americans rewrote American culture and politics: Stan Lee created a superhero empire; Robert Oppenheimer cracked open the atom and gave birth to the nuclear bomb; Mel Brooks made icons of American cinema. If Zielinski, in 20 years, has come this far, why can’t African Americans?
When we narrativise the Civil Rights Movement, we often focus on individual, extraordinary figures, like Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whilst forgetting smaller, forgotten voices, who played just as instrumental a part. Rosa Parks was far from the only black woman. Small acts of rebellion are central to the struggle. The film’s protagonists may be exceptions rather than the rule, but there were still thousands of black women working for NASA in the 1960s, each with their own narrative.
In retroactive joy, the opening scene introduces Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, their broken-down car on the side of the road as they drive to work, pulled over by a white cop. Today, we might expect to see the three beaten and shot, but the film twists this, as he escorts them to the NASA facility, chasing after his vehicle at breakneck speed as they revel in the miracle of being three black women chasing a cop in 1961.
Change is only able to come when one demands change; just as with man’s footsteps on the Moon, it requires “one small step” to make a “giant leap for mankind”. But as with Cathy’s involvement with the NAACP in Far from Heaven(2002), change depends upon the willingness of white people. In her courtroom case for the right to an education, Mary makes a personal plea to the white judge to allow her to study night classes in a segregated school that refuses to even acknowledge the existence of women, for him to be the first and go down in history. It may never express the same emotional power as a similar scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but it’s still important. In response to Katherine’s powerful, rain-soaked demand for respect and sympathy from her male co-workers, Al makes fighting segregation a personal issue, removing “COLORED” labels from coffee machines and removing the sign from the women’s bathroom with a wrench.
The tragedy is, this feels like fantasy. Al would receive a talking to. Other southern NASA institutions wouldn’t follow suit. Someone would go back in there with a screwdriver and reinstate the sign. Yet in the midst of transgender bathroom debates, the question over whether bathrooms need a race or a gender for the most basic of human acts still speaks a power.
All the film’s protagonists desire is parity. To learn programming, Dorothy must venture outside the Colored section of the library to find a book on FORTEAN, be shouted at by a librarian, pulled outside by an aggressive white guard, and hide the book in her bag which she bought with her taxes anyway. In doing so, she appears to turn the first IBM on ever. Our protagonists must work above and beyond their male coworkers, finding as many loopholes as possible, in order to just keep up with them. To rise above, Mary must apply to a degree that isn’t open to her.
Hidden Figures is a story of both regression and progression: each small step forward only brings our protagonists one step back. In the most illuminating example of this, Katherine demands the unaffordable pearls that are an essential part of her uniform she’s meant to have on day one; she only ever gets them when she leaves the job, out of the kindness of white people. Even when she attends, she is marginalised, unable to watch the mission that she ensured happened.
We understand our protagonists as fully formed characters, with their own personalities; Katherine is embedded within black culture, attending church sermons preaching of the struggle, living as a mother yet as far more than just that, with the same struggles of finding time between work and family as any other adult, with her own developing relationships. The soundtrack refuses to evoke white music of the period, instead opting for new songs by Pharrell Williams.
Yet directed by the white guy who did St. Vincent (2014), Hidden Figures will never carry the intensity and anger of a Spike Lee joint, or of Beyonce’s unapologetic Lemonade(2016). It may not do anything remarkably new either: it is not the definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement, nor is it the definitive film of the Space Race. The film never has the budget to recreate rocket launch-offs or shuttles recovered from the ocean, instead relying upon an uneasy mix between CGI and archival footage, relaying historical information through awkward expositional text. Mid-way through the film, as with how For All Mankind (1989) opens, we see JFK’s iconic speech:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […] We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Maybe ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) already explored the struggle of women amidst the Space Race. Timeless (2016) already invoked Katherine Johnson’s role within NASA just a few months ago.
Not every scene works perfectly, nor is every line of dialogue perfectly written. But that is besides the point. Hidden Figures never strives to be a masterpiece of American cinema.