Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Pretty Girl is like a What?

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) and SUCKER PUNCH (2011) both operate on the principle that beautiful young women are a threat to male sanity and are witches and insane and have cast hexes on us, especially if we're uglier, older, shorter, balder, sourer, poorer, weaker, lamer, squarer, or viler overall than the young, dumb, rich, handsome, eloquent sots these ladies tumble for. The beauty of these young women is a twisted dagger slowly turning in the base of our necks, making our face blush in shame. Such a blusher is the sourpuss Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his adopted charge, Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), who both pine for oblivious dancing queen Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) in HUNCHBACK, while SUCKER PUNCH intends to make us--its ideal fanboy demographic--equally ablush and enthralled, pining for these baby doll babes, longing to free them from the sleazy stereotypes that have them roped into a combination mental ward, Inquisitor Dungeon and strip club.

Since one of these movies is an esteemed, timeless classic and one is--as of late--reviled, why not compare them?

Esmeralda (a never-hotter Maureen O'Hara), the dancing gypsy, is actually the only object of desire for nearly all of Paris in HUNCHBACK, and those who can't play either cheer in the massive, impressively clued-in throng (news travels around so fast they must have a gossip vine form of acoustic Twitter) or sulk... and skulk... like Frollo, a dark soul trying to be darker than he really is, who eventually frames her for his rival's murder, since she--a nothing gypsy girl!!--dared spurn him, the Marquis de Bishop of Whatever. We know he's not too bad because he saved Quasimodo as an orphan and gave him sanctuary, but he's not cool about his charge putting on airs, any PSYCH major will realize that running under the benevolence of the gesture is the need to not be the ugliest guy in the room. At any rate, it's still nicer than just leaving him to die in the gutter, presumably.

Meanwhile the idea of sanctuary in the church seems a strange one (has no pursued murderer in Paris ever thought to hide there? If that law existed in New York City you wouldn't be able squeeze a toe into Saint Patrick's Cathedral, or any church, ever), especially since, Esmeralda is the only one in the whole film who ever runs in there for safety. We know she's good because over a montage of sinners praying "give me this," and "I want that," she's saying "let me help" and "save my people." She's not selfish, and man that's understandable considering she's so hot she's probably never had to pay for anything in her life. It must be alarming to have such a profound effect on people, where the benevolent glance or kind word can turn any passing wastrel into an obsessive stalker. But you can't exactly pray to be less gorgeous.

The film takes full advantage of the barbarism of the era to milk suspense, and the sanctuary of the 'classic lit' rubric to protect its salacious sadism from the censors' persecutive scissor, and that means confession under torture (Esmeralda gets the rack), public humiliation, whipping, and hanging. The big gallows' rescue is one of the most electric crowd-pleasing crowd scenes ever filmed, but for me the best moment is before that, when--on returning home from his grueling ordeal outside church where he endured flogging and hooting punishment--Quasimodo takes a look at Frollo, who is equal parts anxious and indignant over his charge's punishment, and shouts that Esemeralda gave him water!!!" All the pain and humiliation was worth it, just for that one drink (on the other hand would the drink have been so great without the pain and humiliation?) It's the equivalent of a guy boasting to his buddy on coming home Sunday afternoon after hooking up with the girl both of them were hitting on the night before. A time for basking, that Frollo can either receive like a bro, happy for another bro who just earned his way up from whipping boy to fledgling wingman, or to get embittered and petty about it, like a murph or wally.

Either way, from then on Quasimodo won't lay off the bells.

That just a gulp of water can override his pain and humiliation to the point of ecstasy creeps Esmerelda out big time, of course. God forbid she give him a kiss, he'd jump off the tower to his death in a paroxysm. Frollo meanwhile has his power and status which makes his abject humiliation and pain over her rejection all the more unendurable.

Zack Snyder's SUCKER PUNCH works similarly, because the lead, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), is such a blank slate-- refusing to do anything right, stick up for herself or decide what she wants to do for a living. Naturally she ends up shanghaied by her sleazy embittered stepfather to a combination ballet school, mental institution for 'interrupted' girls, and, and sleazy strip club, where she fantasizes her way into overly-designed video games where she wipes out giant samurai or steam-powered WWI Germans with apparently no effort and nothing at stake beyond loss of one's quarter.

That a young girl (though at 20, her step father has no power of attorney over her, so the whole committed thing is dubious) can be so trapped by the male gaze that even her fantasies are not her own (do baby dolls really imagine such vivid CGI steam-punk detail? Where's the rainbows and ponies?) is hard to take in an alleged action sci-fi fantasy film. She's not only stuck in this loony bin dance club, she's stuck having to fight giants and stuff, which might be fun for five minutes but basically its like watching her douchebag boyfriend play Doom rather than go down on her (like he promised) while she listens to various remixed and re-recorded 'sexy' rock and pop anthems like "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" and "Army of Me" on her iPod and tries to tell herself it's okay, she's not being exploited, but no amount of CGI airships can quell the unease in her gut.

I knew going in how badly SUCKER PUNCH was received, but whatever. You just have to see the grave where your dreams died. Every man who's read comic books instead of playing baseball in his youth has an inner movie he's been slowly writing as he goes along, an unfinished screenplay with lesbians and martial arts, and he sets scenes to music he likes as he mopes or fumes along the boulevards, listening to anguished rock in his headphones or on the way to work, planning and editing to the beat, each gunshot suffused with meaning that will never translate beyond his own tortured adolescent pine box. But how can he know just how little anyone else cares about these fantasies? He's too enraptured with his own sad longing, and why would he want to actually film this shit anyway if he had the backing? How could Snyder know his private dance floor would kill the desire in the rest of us? Everything, from the infantalizing stripper-baby fashions to the steampunk battlefield, he depicts, turns to hot air in his anti-Midas touch.

Sorry, bro, he killed it all: gone, the agog rapture for the baby doll pout and the Catholic school girl uniforms; gone, the yen for bustiers; gone, stockings and stylish black heels; gone, the thrill of watching a sword cut through adamantium like butter; gone, the kinky allure of a black lace choker or blonde Heidi braids; gone the concerned interest in bi-polar body mutilation, the sparkly reflection of the hot sun in the pool of cold well water cupped in Esmerelda's alabaster palms.. It's all now as stale as 1980s puffy hair and pleated chinos (or as they have come to be called, long after I stopped wearing them, 'khakis'). These details once brought us from story sea to port, sheltered in the hurricane eye of long straight shiny jet black hair, perfect skin, and rain-stained eye liner. The chick who soaked you past flooding and bailed fast as a mail sack picked up by a speeding train, she's now just a mom... on Facebook you can see her age and widen, til all that's left are pixels and dental records.

Now there is nothing, just a blue light was / my mind, but the red light ain't my baby, no more. She never even noticed-- through her Vogue cover never-pay-for-her-own-food (not that she ate anything) and champagne bubble--the vile water line of male desire, the same limit that sinks SUCKER PUNCH. So if you want your son to give up living in a fantasy world show it to him. At least the TV he sees it on is real, allegedly.

It's a good lesson too for pretty girls everywhere: all Esmeralda would have had to do to get rid of Frollo and avoid all the agonies of his vengeance would be to hold him tight and talk about marriage and and how much she loves him and will never let him go, and how they'll be together forever, and have eighteen children, all boys, and then just keep going, clinging to him constantly and talking and shouting loud enough to burst his ear though she's not even straining her voice, for her mama! Mama! Que largo dentes vos sos! from across the courtyard. Frollo would be instantly claustrophobic and run as fast as she first did when Quasimodo's hideous shape and crooked smile came lunging out at her. Such is the abject terror when one finds their obscure object of desire has stopped running and has turned back with needy arms outspread. All that bedroom longing and tortured romantic obsession is revealed suddenly as the delusions of a hungry ghost desperate to avoid the empty stare of its own waterlogged, puffy-lipped corpse. The rest is silence, or Stooges covers... echoing through an empty multiplex.


  1. Awesome comparison. I haven't seen SUCKER PUNCH (all that reviling) but you make me want to do so, just for the academic exercise in comparison.

  2. Thanks Jenn, the academic exercise may prove the only way to make it through the end. Certainly it has some 'found object' value and would be at home in Steven Saviro's book-length examinaton of Gamer, Southland Tales, and Boarding Gate, 'Post-Affect Cinema," which I recommend as an alternative.

  3. You didn't try to watch SUCKER PUNCH straight, did you?

  4. Fascinating and well executed commparison piece. This is the first article I have seen that has made me halfway want to see SUCKER PUNCH. Great work.


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