Tag Archives: representation

War for the Planet of the Apes and Post-Human Cinema?

Many films have used non-human characters as their protagonists. Pixar films have famously animated various things from toys, cars, bugs to even emotions with narrative agency and made us love every moment of it. We have rooted for toys to return to their homes, fish finding their family, cars regaining their glory, or even emotions achieving a balance. However, the recent Planet of the Apes films have achieved a further distinction in not only creating non-human protagonists that we can root for, but in making their quest for survival come at a direct cost of human characters. By turning the humans as the main antagonists, these films have achieved something of a landmark in post-human cinema – conceiving a fictional world where we can step out of our position of dominance and see the overwhelming impact we have had in shaping the world. Although this reflection still occurs in very human terms, where the protagonists are not replacements of humanity but inheritors of what it essentially means to be human, this reflection opens a new line of questioning about the effect of the cinematic image.

This cinematic image of the heroic ape riding a horse bareback, and still capable of wielding a machine gun when the situation demands it leaves the audience thrilled and excited. Here is a hero who is able to overcome the face of the oppressive overlords that we have faced in our own lives – that of humans in positions of authority and seemingly unending power. But our response to the heroic overthrower of human authority also makes us wonder if there is something essentially problematic with the seductive power of a film that can compel you to hate your own ‘kind’. Is it too close to propaganda films that totalize the human enemy into a monolithic figure-head deserving all our hate? Despite featuring sympathetic and likeable human figures in all three movies, are the Apes films in their own way – racist [against humans]? Do they bait our compulsive beliefs about cruelest and worst aspects of humanity and turn our justifiable anger against individual figures of tyranny toward all humanity?

A close look at the films show that these questions are not entirely baseless. The apes have all the narrative agency that has for long remained the domain of human or surrogate protagonists. Caesar, a noble leader who simply wants to find a space for his people, and preaches co-existence when it is possible strikes at the heart of our aspirations for a modest hero – one who would not look for a fight for its own sake, whose heroism always evaluates its cost. The more aggressive and violent among the apes are still largely justified in their anger as they had sustained years of abuse at the hands of humans. Caesar’s own outburst of anger in the third film marks the peak of unwanted human aggression and at many moments in the film we cheer on as he defies the humans.

Contrarily, the human characters are presented as monstrous and ruthless beings who are so deeply entrenched in their own desire to continue their domination of the world, that they disregard the changing landscape of evolution that had put them in a dominant position in the first place. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus in the second film is motivated by his survival instinct and goes to war only when provoked. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the third film is a raving megalomaniac whose opposition to the ape-kind is motivated by his belief in human superiority and the need to destroy competition. There is a rapid advancement of Ape-technology and a simultaneous degradation of human technology that makes the human position of dominance unsustainable, and they fight tooth and nail before they are dethroned. Even though all three films have a ‘good human’ figure in James Franco, Jason Clarke and Amiah Miller – they are progressively less influential in the narrative. Where Franco’s scientist is clearly more powerful as he directly turned Caesar to an intelligent ape, Clarke’s human survivor and his band of humans play a much-reduced part in the relationship, as they are equal who seek co-existence. Miller’s mute little girl in the third film reduces her position even further as she is completely under the protection of the apes, almost like a cherished pet.

Ape Caesar, better than the human ones.

However, such a reading of the films as positioning the viewers against humans misses a larger point about the film, or any post-human cinematic protagonists – the protagonists are not human replacements but merely human surrogates. The Pixar movies were successful because they dealt with human experiences even though the characters were non-human. They deal with relationships, success and failure in human terms, much like the Apes franchise. The Apes films may have turned humans the villains, but they have created a new type of humans in the apes, where the protagonists are human and humane in their behavior – in terms of their strategy, motivation and action. When we see the intelligent apes behave as humans do, we are not worried about the apes taking over, but rather see that the feature that has enriched the apes is their new-found humanity. And for this reason, we will continue watching a good overcoming-the-odds narrative regardless of the color of the skin or shape of the face of the protagonist.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Wives on the line: Cinema’s supporting women

In a 2013 roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actress Emma Thompson expressed her frustration on the roles she was offered that “basically involved [her character] saying to a man: please don’t do that brave thing, stay here with me. Don’t do the brave thing because the children need you.” Thompson observes that the “stock character of the woman who says don’t do the brave thing [is] one of the classic hurdles for heroes”. This description of Hollywood roles and character-hood exposes a certain kind of (mis)treatment of women in mainstream cinema; one in which many films portray women’s positions, indeed those of the supporting role, as often that of simply serving the hero’s journey, frequently at the expense of any attempt at individualising their own.

This essay is interested in discussing a certain type of supporting female role, a sub-category of a sub-category: the wife and mother, left at home, present but absent, and in these instances, always found on the phone – crying, voicing distressed notes of support and encouragement to her husband, and ultimately, seeking his safe return home.

AMERICAN WIVES, ON THE (PHONE) LINE

Contemporary Hollywood Cinema  presents the dutiful wife whose chief role is to frame her spouse’s adventures and achievements as being of paramount importance, and significantly to act as a reminder of the ideal environment of the heteronormative home, to which he must fight to return. This specific representation sadly persists in a few recent films. In 2014’s American Sniper (Eastwood) and 2015’s Everest (Kormákor) this type of absent yet present, crying-down-the-phone supporting role can be clearly identified. In Eastwood’s film Sienna Miller plays Taya, wife to the titular sniper Chris Kyle. Despite scenes that flesh out her character’s personhood, goals, and ambitions, the film routinely uses her as a device that frames the audience’s desire for the protagonist to return home safely; she is a surrogate for our anxiety about Kyle’s circumstances. In one scene, when Taya is pregnant and on the phone with Kyle, she hears shooting and screaming from the war-zone,  as the threat of Kyle’s possible death interrupt the conversation. When the sequence reaches peak emotional trauma, Taya is used as a device to evoke an emotional response from the audience, through a highly gendered use of framing and staging.

sienna-miller-american-sniper
Sienna Miller in American Sniper, Warner Bros.

She is a tool in this sequence who compounds how the audience ought to view her love of Kyle, and the hope of a family and future that she carries inside her. This typifies the type of role Thompson describes, one that chiefly sets the female as the pull towards home and peace, at the expense of her own narrative orientation. This framing serves as a moral pull to remind Kyle that his real place is at home with his family, once his traditionally masculine work is complete, so to speak.

In Everest, Kiera Knightley plays the same exact type; she is Jan Hall, wife to Jason Clarke’s Rob Hall, and unsurprisingly—an expectant mother. Her character falls into the same distressed scenarios, and visual representations. The distressed pregnant wife, left at home, seemingly incomplete, is such a highly gendered depiction that  yokes these characters to to their marital and maternal roles.  In this instance, her husband’s adventurous and dangerous work has engendered his life, and thus his wife’s (as the film would have us believe), and she in turn functions as a beacon of home, calling him up, wishing for a safe and swift return. The narrative’s  focus on her pregnancy underpins the gendered and familial basis of their relationship.

Kiera Knightley in Everest, Universal Pictures.
Kiera Knightley in Everest, Universal Pictures.

Although these films are based on true events, the films’ framing of these women as chiefly (if not exclusively) emotional surrogates for the audience, stuck behind a phone, crying for their husbands, helpless makes us question the extent of authenticity of these circusmstances. Each film makes a conscious choice to limit the women’s roles to their sites of marriage and motherhood, in order to  position the male at the centre of the story. Moreover, these specific roles seem so saturated with a gendered imbalance that limits the scope of these women, inhibiting the actors’ ability to explore their interiority separate from their role as wife and mother – an issue that ultimately restricts how the audience can receive, view, and contextualise them.  We see them primarily, if not exclusively, behind closed doors, confined at home, crying down the phone – a reward for their spouse, if they successfully complete their precarious jobs.

 

Kiera Knightley in Everest, Universal Pictures.
Kiera Knightley in Everest, Universal Pictures.

Similarly, the trailers for the upcoming films Sully (Eastwood) and Deepwater Horizon (Berg), also present such characters. Laura Linney plays Lorraine Sullenberger, wife to the titular heroic pilot Chesley Sullenberger (in another Eastwood picture), and Kate Hudson plays Felicia Williams, wife to Mike Williams, a rig worker on the now infamous and doomed platform. The trailers for both films show the narrative’s focal point of conflict for the male protagonist, and intercuts it with the protagonist’s wife at home, crying for their husband, waiting on the other end of a phone, looking tragically out of a window, or franticly pacing, wanting their husbands to return home.

 

Laura Linney in Sully, Warner Bros.
Laura Linney in Sully, Warner Bros.
Kate Hudson in Deepwater Horizon, Summit Entertainment.
Kate Hudson in Deepwater Horizon, Summit Entertainment.

Even in these two-minute long trailers, these characters are framed in typical structural positions of supporting roles echoing the behaviours of the films previously addressed. Such a visual and narrative portrayal of this type of supporting female role not only suggests a pattern towards a certain type of female representation but points toward larger issues of marketing and consumerism in genera that have internalized gendered structures in ways beyond artistic and filmic outputs themselves, and into many aspects of culture at large.

WHY THE PHONE + WHERE FROM HERE?

It is not to say that these roles are all bad; the characters rightly offer the audience an emotional core that the male protagonists, whilst caught up in the hyper-masculine compulsions of the plot, may not provide. However, by locating the female at the human and emotional centre of the plot itself is a reductive, gendered approach— one rooted in stereotypy, that does a disservice to the male and female central characters, the story itself, and the audience at large.

While it may be true that the trope of the dutiful wife who stays at home while her husband – despite her protestations – goes off to adventure, work, and do the brave thing, may not be as blunt and obvious as in decades past; and, despite a seemingly positive note that the women at the domestic and familial hearts of these films are granted more screen-time and elements of characterisation, it must be said that the framing of these roles in such a way continues to suggest an all too familiar idea: where one’s role as a loving and supportive wife and mother, with an ability to be drawn not in isolation, confined to the home, without emotional hyperbole, independent of the central male-centric dramatic scenarios, seem mutually exclusive. These women seem forever bound to a certain duty of gendered spectatorship.

My  problem with this trope (and its clutching-the-phone-crying aesthetic) is how it routinely prioritises the wife’s love for her husband and her desire to have him back over genuine interior exposition of her own character’s thoughts and feelings. This in turn serves to signal to the audience the moral, emotional, and narrative value of supporting female roles, based on the stereotypically gendered positions of husband and wife. It is as if to say I’m here, waiting for you, always. I have no doubt that in real life these women are more pro-active, complicated, and messy than we’re given glimpse to. Then why do these films seem so set against reflecting their complexity?  Although it is every director’s prerogative to frame their narrative and characters as they see fit, that does not mean   that we need not object to such a repeated limiting of perspectives, based on the gendered assumptions of what a wife and mother’s role ought to be. Such representations – as benign as they may appear – carry with them the ability to propagate harmful myths and buttress systems of gendered inequality, both in terms of narrative placement and perceived value, all of which contribute to maintaining and creating more of the same defunct representations, where rich, emotionally deep women are reduced to narrative tools and crying bodies, stuck behind a telephone, and not much else.

Share your views and comments with ScreenEthics.com on facebook or twitter.

danielThe contributing writer DANIEL MASSIE is a PhD candidate, at The Universities of Stirling and Glasgow. With a BA in fine art, and a MLitt in film studies, he is interested in the relationships between aesthetics, gender, supporting actresses, and The Academy Awards.

Artis Thompson III – Overcoming the Odds of Representation

What is the word for when you feel a mix of happiness and disappointment simultaneously?

AT3
AT3

Last week, Artis Thompson III put in a strong performance in the American Ninja Warrior. For those who have not seen the video, take a look:

That is a beautiful performance by a strong person; an admirable feat for any body of any level of ability. Personally, I was thrilled with every determined and measured step that Artis Thompson III took throughout the course. Sure, we have seen smoother runs on the Ninja Warrior course, but Artis’ performance is not about making things seem effortless. They are about revealing the effort that it takes to be counted as equal in a disabling world. Especially his moments on the rolling beams were stunning, as I waited with bated breath as he carefully advanced, balancing on the beam, one step at a time. And at the fateful moment when he was wiped out, there was none of the usual jeering as the entire crowd felt for him. They wanted him to succeed because he did not define his aim by the body he is housed in. In his defiance, he was able to do things that most cannot; irrespective of their ability.

But this viewing pleasure was also marked by a disappointment. Not by his failure to complete the course. That was part of the game. But by the lingering camera shots that focused on his prosthetic leg as he dangled from the rafters. Even when he was demonstrating remarkable strength, the camera eye chose to focus on something that marks his exception from the norm. At that moment, the recording of his feat did not feel like a celebration of his achievement. It felt like a grotesque carnival; a show that fetishized his ‘freakish’ strength.

News coverage of this event was also equally dominated by his ‘story’ of the prosthetic rather than his story of strength. Media stories that covered the show ran titles including: “One Legged Man Shows Insane Grit on American Ninja Warrior” (MRCTV) and “American Ninja Warrior Contestant Competes with Prosthetic Leg like a Damn Boss” (HuffPo). While both pieces wax eloquent about Artis’ ability, they frame their stories through his disability. And I just find that oddly disappointing.

Maybe I am overreacting. But I wonder if there is a different way of talking about exception without marking the person as outside of the community.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.