Thursday, July 24, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD, GINGER SNAPS and Your Reproductive Lunar Cycle

Even in our modern age of 'chick-flicks' and 'rom-coms' --films that allegedly delve deep into women's sexual trials and truths--there are some issues which never get treated 'openly,' i.e. brazenly and even-keeled: the female orgasms, menstruation, and unplanned pregnancies that end not in hasty marriage or adoption but abortion. And of those, almost none that involve abortion without guilt or shaming, or using it as some character development to imply loose morals and lazy self-preservation instincts. The censorship codes of our grandparents die hard. Sexual voracity is strictly for teenage boys, or hot (but accessible) 'girlfriend material' like Emma Stone; trapped in bromantic comedies with dudes well below their stature, these 'cool girls' get together with some fat unemployed slob 'cuz he's witty and Apatow sez so. And if she does find a good looking dude, he's inevitably cookie-cutter WASP bland, or a playa who puts her on his B-tier booty call list.

That's why films like OBVIOUS CHILD (2014) and GINGER SNAPS (2000) are so shocking, and instantly relevant. They provide sorely needed feminine mystique injections into a cinema choked with hormonal boy's gym clothes rankness and squeamish back-of-the-bus tittering.

Slate at Cross's.
The first great abortion comedy in history, Obvious Child is a conscious effort to undo this injustice and in the process remains hilarious down to its fertile core. SNL alum Jenny Slate stars as struggling Williamsburg hipster stand-up comedian Donna who "would like an abortion, please," and respectfully declines hearing the other options from the Planned Parenthood counselor. She likes the guy she met on a one-night stand, Max (Jake Lacy, from The Office), who was too drunk to get the condom on, but doesn't know him well enough to even tell him, right? She needs confirmation that she doesn't need to tell him, which is interesting in and of itself. If this was any other movie, not telling him would be a betrayal and she would have to die for her sins... so the baby could live, or some shit like that.

Credit a beautiful script by director Gillain Robespierre (based on her short film of the same name) that we never doubt Donna's sensitivity or strength, even as the jokes flow consistently. We can respect that Donna's mind is made up and that she's smart and has considered her options and is neither martyr nor lost soul. She even knows how to check her own tendency to leaven her inner tension while dealing with the issue, yet never presumes that tension is somehow 'valid' because of the surrounding controversy.

There's such a perfect rapport between Slate and the material it's hard to believe it's all not happening in the moment, with special attention to the way people actually talk, not 'normal' people, but real young Williamsburg-dweller college-educated witty individuals. I've seen this kind great naturalistic flow only with the best 'ensemble' female comedy teams--Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in BRIDESMAIDS (2007), Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in BROAD CITY, and nowhere else. These are women who've done enough improv and rehearsal to make their characters breathe and roll rather than submitting to some half-assed plot twists thrust on them by some clueless male or self-hating female screenwriter whose low opinion of young women is masked by generic feminist lip service (i.e. the grating dimwittedness 'hipsters' in JUNO and FRANCES HA).

Broad City - the Best 
The cast includes Polly Draper as Donna's domineering business school professor mother; Richard Kind as her puppeteer dad; David Cross a skeevy comedian chum; Gabe Liedman the bitchy gay emcee buddy (with none of the usual cliches thereto forthwith); and Gaby Hoffmann (see: The Little Mescalito that Could) as the roommate. All able. When Donna busts the tale of her abortion out on stage we cringe and hold tight to the arm rests, teeth gritted, expecting yet another long, sad bombing like her previous performance, or alienation of this new man's affection. I won't spoil the endings but I wouldn't even be writing this post had OBVIOUS CHILD even once tread familiar ground.

Robespierre and Slate
I can see this becoming the film women watch while on the couch recovering from their Planned Parenthood journey, something that won't make them feel bad about their decision while never making light of it either, with no need for self-hatred or permanent emotional scarring. May this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and collaboration: Slate and Robespierre, the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of a new child-free generation! Between them and the BROAD CITY babes, I have high hopes for a second female comic renaissance (1).

Speak of menstrual cycles, and the female orgasm, and female duos fighting the Patriarchy, GINGER SNAPS (2000) arrives on a stunning Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout Factory this week. A near masterpiece of feminine hygiene horror, GINGER has a deserved cult, genuine badass attitude, humor, existential morbidity, and a blood-drenched yet touching finish. Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) is the older sister, the bitten one, and younger introvert Brigitte (Emily Perkins) her faithful and similarly Thanatos-obsessed sister. They hate everyone in their nowhere Canadian high school and live in their own world, taking pictures of themselves in various death scenarios for a ghastly school art project under the opening credits and discussing suicide methods. When a popular girl overhears their bitter remarks about her during field hockey practice, an escalating series of fights leads to Ginger being attacked by a werewolf. As the full moon of her menstrual cycle lycanthropy turns her from HEAVENLY CREATURE into a strutting JENNIFER'S BODY-style maneater, Ginger becomes first hot, then kind of overbaked with a lame chest piece and cute button poodle nose, then an outright animal puppet. She'll (still) rip your guts out, Jim.

Younger Brigitte, meanwhile, has to begin the scary task of trying-- not only to help her sister by finding a cure and then cooking it up and injecting it-- but pulling away from their sacred death pact and passing judgment against the 'right' of might.

Killing humans should not be a moral issue for werewolves, anymore than buying a steak for most 'normal' eaters, but Brigitte isn't ready to make that jump, differentiating almost like Scarlett Johansson choosing life in GHOST WORLD. Meanwhile one basks in the lack of tacky on-the-nose
moon-titled pop songs, and though there's a few boys and meals to the side, including a helpful chemist/horticulturist/pot dealer who seems partially inspired Josh Hartnett's character in THE FACULTY (1998), this is a girl's horror movie, bloody like the menses-minded wolf.

There's still a few problems, like the less-than-stellar werewolf effects: there's no real transformation money shot the way there was in THE HOWLING or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and the wolf puppet itself is pretty weak. The idea to make it hairless was a real mistake. These are the kinds of problems which could have been covered by CGI, but digital effects were too expensive at the time. As we learn in the extras. That it all still works is testament to the power of Emily Perkins, whose scenes with the transformed Ginger come alive in ways the monster on its own could not. Like Slate in OBVIOUS CHILD, we can read all sorts of inferences in Perkins' eyes--her understanding of the impassive rubber wolf mask's little gestures makes it come alive for us as well. She brings home the real sadness of being stalked by your own sister, the burden of knowing the only soul in the world you trusted, your one true friend, now wants you to kill your to prove your sororal devotion. With her sullen long face hidden in a deep foxhole of long protective hair, Perkins still conveys a range and her rapport with Isabelle so solid that the minor mechanical problems all melt away and only beautifully framed horror film tableaux remain. The only other actress able to convey the crushing despair of seeing the most important person in your life become a mechanical latex monster? Geena Davis in THE FLY (1986). Another Canadian horror film! Canadian + loss of the kernel by which it was you and she against the world? Coincidence or 49th parallel slid its compass?

The wealth of extras on the Shout disc include a somewhat rambling making-of documentary, deleted scenes, previews, and two separate commentary tracks. In these the director John Fawcett makes sure we know he's the feminist behind this, not all the (ditzy) women who worked on it, like co-writer Karen Walton (though she does get her own commentary track and surely had a hand in the rightness of the dialog, the way Debra Hill did on HALLOWEEN). They're currently working together on the hit BBC show ORPHAN BLACK so they must still be tight -- but he'd be a lot better off letting Walton take more credit. Hell, Jack Hill even invented a woman author for his SWINGING CHEERLEADERS script, though none was remotely involved. Fawcett does have some slyly deprecating things to say about the final monster, and how they had to keep it in shadow a lot to keep up the scariness --a nice way of saying it sucked - though he was the one who insisted it be hairless and albino. (Terrible choice, John!) There's also some insight into the tax-funded Canadian film industry (there was a backlash when the script was sent around to casting agencies because Columbine had just occurred), audition tapes from the early part of the process, and what the actors look like now (or Emily Perkins anyway, who seems like a completely different person, above)

Jennifer's Body (note Hawksian Scarface hand stamp)

But the real juicy extra is a panel of female horror writers and filmmakers discussing horror films that deal with women's sexuality and how drastically apart films like GINGER SNAPS are from the bulk of slasher films and how that imbalance is an expression of man's horror of gynecology; the scariness and pain for the girl of her first period being something a man can't quite face, and the way females can only achieve orgasm in movies if they also kill their lover immediately (or else are killed) afterwards. They give some love to the underrated JENNIFER'S BODY (see my praiseful post Dead Jennifers), CARRIE (of course), and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS. And they seem to agree with me that TEETH is a nice idea that totally fails as a film, its makers second-guessing and sewing members back on right up to the time I turned it off (see here).

The sum of their discussion is never voiced, but you can read it here: GINGER SNAPS is badass. It dares to never even approach the idea of a 'normal' life being worth a shit. We don't end the film with Brigitte cutting her hair and finding a nice boy her own age, thank the pantheon of female gods. GINGER has already gone on to have quite a cult for itself, and even two pretty good sequels. I hope OBVIOUS CHILD gets the same lasting love, and that it blows Zach Braff's facile WISH I WAS HERE (which includes "Obvious Child" on its golden indie oldies soundtrack - as if snooping over Gillian Robespierre's shoulder) out of the water, and that more female writers and directors and actors have the balls, if you'll forgive the expression, to openly convey the bizarre terrors of their menstrual and reproductive cycles rather than leaving it to men for whom the vagina is still a disturbing void ever ready to swallow them up, but over which they presume control once they have successfully entered and planted their flag. Fuck them and their flags! If every abused suffering wife and daughter in a fundamentalist or abusive home just slit her husband's, father's or oldest son's throat in the dead of night, we'd wake up to a world free of violence. Am I the only one who thinks like this? Fuck the irony! Wake the Venusian Flytrap kraken, let a screaming jock or frat boy be fed to each anemone tendril orifice!

Or at the very least, ladies, keep up the good fight, and smile so we can see your pretty incisors...

1. the first being of course the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler-Maya Rudolph-Rached Dretch SNL era.

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