Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gratuitous Tragedy and the Rachel Explosion

If I was a superhero, my arch-nemesis would be Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of such fine movies as "Memento," "The Prestige," "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight," and "Inception."

Nolan would be my nemesis for a couple of reasons. First, he's one of the very few storytellers who can surprise me, so I know he could match me in wits and in battle. Not to brag--well, okay, I'm bragging a little--but I'm one of those incredibly irritating people who can almost always guess the ending of a movie or television show ahead of time, because I know what makes stories work. Stories are like math problems to me; once all the variables have been presented, I can make the calculations on my own and see how it all turns out. But except for "Batman Begins," I've never been able to predict where Nolan is taking his characters. Each time, I've had to mutter to myself, "Well played, sir. Well played," as I try and work backwards from the ending to see how it all went down without me knowing.

Nolan wouldn't be my nemesis simply because he can surprise me. Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison and Steven Moffat (my favorite "Doctor Who" writer) also fall into this category. No, a nemesis has to equal you in power and abilities, AND vex you terribly at every turn. Nolan vexes me terribly. Can you guess why?

*MASSIVE SPOILERS to all of the above movies follow. You've been warned.*

Let me tell you about every one of Nolan's protagonists: a handsome guy is mentally unstable and can't have normal human relationships because the love of his life was tragically taken away from him, and now he lives to rectify that tragedy.

Memento: guy with short-term memory loss is on a quest to find the man who raped and killed his wife.

The Prestige: magician is obsessed with humiliating the other magician who may or may not have killed his wife. The other magician's wife hangs herself.

Batman Begins: Batman's character is so perfect for Nolan's formula that I'm pretty sure Nolan's formula is really just the Batman formula with a dead woman substituting for Bruce Wayne's dead parents. However, perhaps because he's not content unless there's an imperiled women in there SOMEWHERE, Nolan created the character Rachel Dawes and then had her get attacked by the Scarecrow so that when Batman faces him in battle, he's not just fighting some guy in a scarecrow mask--he's fighting his beloved's attacker! It's personal!

The Dark Knight: And speaking of Rachel Dawes, did she get a raw deal in this movie or what? She gets blown up by the Joker, breaking not only Batman's heart, but also the heart of her fiance, Harvey Dent. Dent is so traumatized by the Rachel Explosion (also the name of my new feminist techno dance group) that he becomes Two-Face and goes on a murderous rampage to avenge her death.

Inception: I just saw this movie last night. I highly recommend it. Good stuff. Great scene in a gravity-less hotel hallway, among other things. But again, Nolan's protagonist is a man both haunted and motivated by the loss of his beloved wife, who killed herself and now haunts the hero's subconscious.

What the hell, Nolan? You found one type of character that you really liked and just decided to run with it until the studios stopped giving you money? I know that tragedy is a great motivator, but do your heroes always have to be dudes with dead girlfriends? The BF really likes Nolan's movies because they're intelligent, exciting, feature explosions and gunfights, but DON'T include gratuitous sex scenes, which he hates. I agree with him, but I'd argue that Nolan relies too heavily on gratuitous tragedy, which in some ways is just as anti-feminist as gratuitous sexuality.

You knew that's where this conversation was headed. Don't pretend like you didn't.

Nolan sucks--suckysuckySUCKS--atwriting female characters. Not one of his movies passes the Bechdel Test, which requires 1) at least two female characters, who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. It's such a simple series of requirements, yet each of Nolan's movies is an epic fail when it comes to the ladies. His women are all either someone's wife or girlfriend, which means they're most likely dead or going to die onscreen. The exceptions are the evil woman in "Memento," the mistress in "The Prestige," and Ellen Page's character in "Inception." You know what happens to those women? Yeah, neither do I. They all just sort of fade out of the story with little to no explanation once they've served their narrative purpose.

And as long as we're talking about that, why was Ellen Page even in"Inception"? She served no narrative purpose except to get the protagonist talking about his dead wife. Try this: watch "Inception" and imagine if Ellen Page wasn't in that movie. See? Almost no difference. The only reason she's there, as far as I can figure, is because she's a woman, and women can get men talking about their feelings and all that other girly shit. It doesn't matter that Cobb, the protagonist, literally just met this woman; he'll totally tell her incredibly personal and heartbreaking things about his past, things he wouldn't tell his male teammates even though they've been working with him for years and already know all about his wife's death and the damage it's caused his psyche. Cuz they're MEN, that's why, and men don't talk about their feelings with each other.

I'm not hating on Christopher Nolan. I'm not a superhero yet, nor even a morally ambiguous anti-hero who commits crimes but with good reason, so we don't need to be nemeses. I don't think that Nolan is a misogynist; if you asked him how he feels about female characters in movies, he'd probably say they're just as important as male characters, and that he tries to write them to be strong, independent, and believable. And he'd probably be telling the truth. But Nolan is a product of institutional sexism. The movie industry is intensely sexist down to its core. (If you need proof, list the last ten movies you saw and check how many of them pass the Bechdel Test.) And because Nolan is male, he has the privilege of maintaining what I like to call a "sexism blind spot," where he doesn't see how he shortchanges his female characters because hey, at least he's not putting them in gratuitous sex scenes like all those other sleazy directors. His women are smart, sexy, kind, and possess emotional depth, no argument there, but they don't have a reason to exist outside of their relationships to the male protagonists. They don't have lives of their own, and what life they do have is most likely going to be tragically cut short to give the heroes a reason to do whatever it is the movie's REALLY about.

So, Christopher Nolan--perhaps smarter and better at storytelling than me, and something of a chauvinist. Yes. He will make a worthy opponent.

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