The Gaze Equals Judgment in ‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974] achieves an empirical objectivity that breaks the system of visual pleasure described by Laura Mulvey using its forms to show, not efface, society’s objectification of the “other.” He focuses on characters marginalized by society: old women and foreigners, in a couple that breaks both age and race lines in post World War II Germany. Emmi deflects passive objectification by not fitting the standards of the erotic sexualized female and because she refuses to be silent and static. Ali, othered by his race, is sexualized in the manner usually reserved for women and is passive and silent unlike Emmi. The bearers of the gaze are often groups or women judging Emmi or the couple, instead of the man and the audience sexually objectifying the woman. The gaze presents society’s judgment of the “other” and by implicating the audience critiques society as a whole.

Laura Mulvey proposes that cinema is constructed to privilege the male protagonist and pleasure the male spectator. The mainstream film narrative constructs the woman as “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Her role in film, like her role in society, subjects her to male desire:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been spilt between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects phantasy on to the female figure…In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.

Emmi breaks the trope of female to-be-looked-at-ness and is not coded for strong visual and erotic impact. Instead of the ideal bombshell object of desire, she is an old, fat woman who speaks her mind. She is constructed as “other” and lacking a role since has already fulfilled that of wife and mother. She is outside the realm of sexual objectification and society expects her to quietly disappear. She cannot be objectified like the women in mainstream cinema. Making her the object of sexual gratification for the audience would only serve to make her ridiculous and grotesque. Instead she is portrayed with sensitivity to her emotional state and respect for her humanity. By focusing on her Fassbinder moves away from the image of the sexualized woman and sheds light on a group that rarely receives attention. He illuminates how society marginalizes aging women. Continue reading

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RENT: From Stage to Screen

Chris Columbus’ 2002 film Rent translates the 1996 rock opera into cinematic language. The optimism and hope, combined with harsh social commentary, seething rock ballads and stirring human stories that is Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a challenge to modify for the screen. Using the original Broadway cast (plus a few new voices) and the visual backdrop of NYC instead of the community of artists, addicts, vendors, and homeless in the stage production, Columbus brings Rent into the new millennium. The stage play loses its edge on film without the focus on community, and a darkness that critiques the social injustices perpetrated on the homeless and the gay community. The film gains greater specificity by grounding the fantasy of the musical in the reality of New York City. We see the city in long shots, songs take place on the roof, the subway, and the streets of NYC. The essence of the show remains the same: finding hope and optimism in the harsh landscape of New York where love and living for the moment ultimately triumph over death.

The original cast members: Adam Pascal (Roger), Anthony Rapp (Mark), Jesse L. Martin (Collins), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Taye Diggs (Benny), and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel) return for the film to play the characters they created in 1996 at the New York Theater Workshop. While the director, Chris Columbus, considered making the film with new young people/upcoming rock stars he ultimately decided the only way to make it work was with the original cast. He said that original cast members “were” these characters. In 1996 these actors were relative newcomers, with more or less theater experience, (Adam Pascal was the only raw talent) and as such none of them brought a pre-existing star persona to the stage. They were able to take on the characters, both defining and being defined by them. Using the original cast members in the film lends it authenticity because Rent is synonymous with these actors. They are recreating roles from their past, tapping into the energy and emotions that Rent evoked in them, bringing a sense of nostalgia to their roles and a joy in returning to them that a newcomer would not have. At the same time Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracy Thoms as Joanne bring a freshness and youth to the film that may have been lacking if all of the original cast returned. Rosario Dawson is less gritty and her voice less raw and raspy than Daphne Rubin-Vega and she brings a greater vulnerability and sweetness to the character underneath her tough, sassy veneer. Ultimately the combination of the old and new actors give the film a timelessness that the stage can never have, focusing on the universal themes of love, optimism, and living for today, while losing some of the specificity of the social issues depicted on stage. Continue reading

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Women and Spike Lee, V: Virgin/Whore

Spike Lee has difficulty creating a female character that can be both sexual and a strong woman (though there are some exceptions). Almost every woman in Spike’s films fits into the virgin/whore complex (particularly in the films he wrote). Genius Bastard (reposted on Shadow And Act) has a run down of Spike’s 10 Worst Female Characters. Even Anna Paquin’s character in 25th Hour, though still a teenager, becomes a sexual object. She is described as jailbait and becomes the object of her teacher’s fantasy. Jungle FeverMalcolm X, and He Got Game are the most overtly concerned with prostitution. In all three films prostitution depicts either a woman’s fall, or a fallen woman and it is usually combined with other social problems, such as drugs and abuse. In Jungle Fever, prostitution is portrayed as a side effect of drug addiction; women give blow jobs to be able to afford crack. It is seen as the lowest a woman can fall. In the last scene of the film a woman comes up to Flipper offering to “suck his dick” (as Halle Berry’s character did while he was with his daughter earlier in the film) and he screams “No!” breaking the fourth wall and implicating the audience. This is one of the more effective ways Spike critiques the issue of prostitution. In Malcolm X, we witness the fall of Malcolm’s first girlfriend Laura who he rejects for a white woman. In the beginning, she is a fairly strong woman, she refuses to “give it up” to Malcolm and sticks to her principles. The next time we see her she is being abused by her drug addicted boyfriend, and in the final shot of her in the film she kneels in front of a white man, exhibiting her fall into prostitution.

The way the film deals with this issue is to propose the Nation of Islam as a solution. While the tenets of the Nation of Islam solve some of the problems, moving away from drugs and towards self-respect, the women are still dominated by the men. Most explicitly, one of the banners at a rally reads “We must protect our women, our most valuable property.” While moving away from prostitution women still remain objects. Finally, Milla Jovovich’s character Dakota Burns is a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her pimp, Sweetness, who is redeemed in the end of the film through her relationship with Jake Shuttlesworth.  The first time we see her in the film she is being beaten by Sweetness. As her pimp and her lover/abuser he is dominating and exploiting her in two ways. When she meets Jake she rattles off a string of excuses for staying with him that ring false to the audience and we see the show she is putting on to become this commodity. She is the epitome of a fallen woman, both prostitute and victim of abuse, unable to break free because of the same conditions that brought her there, yet Jake treats her as a lady (though he pays her) and wants to at least pretend their relationship is something more. He admonishes the police officers for their derogatory terms for women, stating that she is a lady. In the end we see her leave town, perhaps having gained back a sense of self-respect, and the idea that she deserves better. Continue reading

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Women and Spike Lee, IV: Rape

The exploitation of women extends even further in some films, to the point of rape. Rape in Spike’s films serves to assert male power over women: putting the unruly woman back in her place. In School Daze, Julian exhibits his complete control over Jane, handing her off to Half-Pint on a whim. Julian tells her that if she loves him and G Phi G she will do what he asks, then tells her she has to have sex with Half-Pint. He sends her into the room with Half-Pint, and she goes, unwillingly. Afterwards, he breaks up with her saying that she has betrayed him. Thus, Jane is an object to be passed around when Julian grows tired of her, and then cast off without remorse. In She’s Gotta Have It, Nola is punished for her sexuality and unwillingness to conform to societal expectations of monogamy. Jamie the “nice guy” gets fed up with her refusal to be monogamous and rapes her to assert his dominance. He is jealous of her sexual encounters with other men, and asks her “is this how you like it?” and imagines the other men in her life and how he thinks they might have sex with her. He asserts his control over her body, asking “whose pussy is this?” until she answers that it is his. Thus, her freedom and sexuality is punished by the film. She can be allowed to act on her own desire in the first half of the film only if male dominance is reasserted in the end. After the rape, she enters into a monogamous relationship with Jamie, showing that her behavior has been corrected. Though in the end she reasserts herself and her control over her body, the damage has already been done. The film cannot contain a sexually liberated woman who goes without punishment.

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Women and Spike Lee, III: Women as Betrayers

The threat of the woman embodied in the idea of temptation is fully expressed through the betrayers, female characters who have sold out (or appear to have sold out) the man they love for their own gain. Both betrayers are played by Rosario Dawson: Lala in He Got Game, and Naturelle in 25th Hour. Lala, (#2 on the list of Spike’s Worst Female Characters) afraid of being left behind when Jesus goes to college schemes with an agent (through the man she is cheating on Jesus with) to convince Jesus to skip college and go straight to the pros. Their relationship is idealized in the beginning of the film, and she is held up as the perfect girlfriend through lighting that halos her and the music) so it is all the more disappointing when we find out she has in fact sold him out. She uses her relationship with him to convince him to meet with the agent. In the end, she tells him she was trying to “get hers,” because he was getting out of the projects while she was still stuck there. Her duplicity combined with her sexuality is the double threat Lee sees in women. Naturelle in 25thHour, however, is immediately implicated by the film, which constructs her as the person who sold Monty out, causing him to go to prison. In the “fuck you” sequence in the mirror her sexual display is tainted and made dirty by his indictment of her: “I gave her my trust and she sold me up the river” yet as we find out later in the film; she was innocent. Yet, she is still blamed by Frank for benefiting from Monty’s drug dealing, and never making him stop, and as such still partly to blame for his arrest. Her indictment by the film, and her assumed guilt by almost every character, including Monty, fulfills the prophecy of the woman as temptation. Trust a woman and you will get bitten, is the message Lee’s films seem to propagate. Nonetheless, this film turns that on its head showing us that not only is Naturelle not guilty, she is loyal and trustworthy, and unworthy of the treatment Monty’s mistaken suspicion of her caused.

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Women and Spike Lee, II: White Women as Tool of Oppression

Ms. White

White women function as a symbol of white power and/or its perks. Ms. White in Inside Man, played by Jodie Foster, symbolizes white power and its corruption, yet she is also one of the stronger female characters in his film. She is polite, calm, and in control throughout the film and she tends to get whatever she wants. She is never intimidated by anyone or any situation. She can walk right up to anyone, from bank robber to politician, tell them what she wants and expect it to be done. She moves uninhibited into the male space of the barbershop and the potentially dangerous arena of the bank. While it is gratifying to see a woman with power in a Spike Lee film, these characteristics represent both her strength and the idea of whiteness that Lee wants to portray. The power to do anything one wants and generally get away with it, no matter how terrible the act, is a characteristic of white patriarchy portrayed in Lee’s films. Ms. White is the agent of white patriarchal power. She brokers deals for the wealthy and powerful, finding a condo in New York for Ben Ladin’s nephew, and while she may be disgusted by Arthur Case’s complicity in the Holocaust she is willing to keep his secret until her own security and status is threatened by Detective Frazier. She is also depicted as very cleanly white for the majority of the film. The casting of Jodie Foster, blonde, blue-eyed, and pale, and her costuming in beige and white through the majority of the film makes her the epitome of whiteness, until her complicity makes her dirty; the red in her clothes represents the blood on her hands.

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Women and Spike Lee, I: Women as Sexual Objects

Despite Spike Lee’s many talents as a filmmaker, he still has a blind spot when it comes to women, portraying them in the same (or worse) terms as the white patriarchy his films react against. Female characters in his films are often flat, representing sex or temptation. Women are treated as a commodity/corrupting force, placed on the same level as drugs and alcohol, lying in wait to corrupt men. Women are portrayed as over-sexed, they’ve just gotta have it. The three main types of women in Spike’s films are: betrayers, “whores,” and mother/sisters. He also uses women as a symbol of white power, either in and of themselves or as a perk of white male power. Nonetheless, there are a few strong female characters in Spike’s films, though mostly in the roles of mother or sister. Spike Lee’s female characters function mainly to prop up his ideal of masculinity and as support for his major themes, rather than being fully developed and multi-dimensional like his male characters.

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