I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are,
in case you don’t know”
-The Velvet Underground
Meshes of the Afternoon pushes the viewer to ask questions of what they expect from images. A knife is generally thought of as a weapon of violence and an instrument of murder. When a woman’s body is used parallel to the knife there is an assumption that the sexualization of murder would occur due to the bevy of images produced by horror and non-horror films alike. Identifying with the woman becomes precedent to the horror film in order to feel the terror of being the victim and thus holding up a mirror to the worst societal aspects of femininity. What Deren does with Meshes of the Afternoon is to perceive the violence both self-inflicted and otherwise in one woman’s life through ground-breaking filmmaking techniques and attention to objects. Meshes uses a dream sequence of repetition and complex layering to introduce the possibilities of one woman and the difficulties of trying to break through a mirror, or in this case a house.
The film is loaded with images that align themselves with easy identification like the knife (masculine) and the flower (feminine). The mirror figure seems to slip in and out of frame gracefully, but is always a looming presence, perhaps a truth-sayer or a version of Deren herself. Meshes scatters from any definitive subjective meaning, but the sensory terror of quick pans and edits, and the woozy camera movements mixed with these definitive images like the knife, flower, blood and the mirror create a sense that the movie is about having a female body. But that is merely one reflection of many.
Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) only share a handful of scenes in the movie bearing her name, but those moments cast a shadow over the entirety of this story. When Jackie gets into trouble carrying Ordell Robie’s (Samuel L. Jackson) money he got from selling illegal firearms across the border she’s sent to jail. Max is a bail-bondsman hired by Ordell to help get Jackie out of prison. Max probably thinks this is going to be just another job, but what he doesn’t expect, what no one can really ready themselves for, is seeing someone and hearing music. People talk a lot about “butterflies” when they see someone they fall for, but in movies that shit is always soundtracked, and when Max sees Jackie he hears “Natural High” by Bloodstone. Jackie’s silhouetted in a wide shot. She’s got broad shoulders, gorgeous hair, and killer legs that run down into a comfortable flats that click on the concrete. It’s the only sound that can be heard other than a guitar plucking an orange note that’s practically visible across the screen. The song is warm and signals to us that this love is immediate, classic, and perfect. Jackie keeps walking closer to Max, and he’s stuck right there, dead in his tracks. There’s a cutting back and forth and he just keeps looking at this woman he just fell in love with. Robert Forster plays it cool, knowing he has a job to do, but if you pay attention to his eyes you can see he’s weak in the knees for Jackie Brown. When she’s finally right there at the front gate he introduces himself, and she to him. The song keeps playing. Might as well keep playing through the rest of the movie. There’s a heist to pull off, and government agents to hoodwink, but all of that is icing on the cake when you’ve got a scene like this one.
Max and Jackie don’t really know they’re living through a perfect night they’ll remember forever. None of us really realize those moments are happening, until you’ve got the context to understand what happened was important. There’s a small tragedy in not knowing what you’ve got when you have it, but that too makes the memory all the better. When Jackie gets in the car the camera hovers a bit around her facial features. We’re looking at her through Max’s eyes and it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall for this woman. She pushes her hair behind her ears and her cheekbones pop. It’s the kind of close-up that would leave you breathless if you saw it on the gigantic screens of a multiplex, but even at home it does the job nicely. The movie wouldn’t work if Max and Jackie’s romance didn’t feel real, and while Jackie takes a bit longer to fall for Max, and doesn’t even realize she’s in love until she’s riding off into the sunset, decked out in the latest fashion with a killer soundtrack blasting behind her, Max loves her immediately. The soundtrack tells us this. Quentin Tarantino always underlines with whatever music cue he introduces into the story and “Natural High” can only ever evoke love.
The night goes on as they drive on by. Max could take her home, but they’re having an easy enough conversation getting to know each other while looking for some place to get a drink. It’d be kind of like a date if Jackie didn’t rightfully have her defences up, but even those eventually slip away. Everything does when you’re really falling for someone. Nothing else is important. Only the vulnerability it takes to give yourself over to what could be something special. Our bodies end up knowing before our heads do. Max and Jackie make all the excuses in the world to stay together on this night and later that morning. They get a drink, they have a cup of coffee, they talk about music. Anything just to keep talking to one another, and it’s perfect for Quentin Tarantino, because he likes nothing more than writing scenes where characters just talk. Max smiles when Jackie finally suggests a place to get a drink, because he knows the night won’t end in that moment. It’ll keep rolling forward with perfect harmony, where two people can be the whole world. Quentin’s got to get across a lot of exposition and move the plot forward in this conversation over a drink and a smoke, but there’s an easyness to the way Grier and Forster converse that makes it feel natural. They talk about gaining or losing weight while smoking cigs and anxieties about their own jobs inbetween the business of dead bodies and jail time and all of it feels just as romantic as that initial encounter. The red light from the bar is like a cocoon for them, a warm place where they can talk about anything with comfort, and as an audience it’s easy to fall in love with the way they speak to one another, the way they trade glances or sit in silence. Max and Jackie are tied together from this point forward. We know it, even if they don’t.
What Max doesn’t know when he finally drops Jackie off at her house is that she took his gun out of the glove compartment to protect herself from Ordell, But more important than protection, it gives him an excuse to go see her again, and she knows that too. Two birds. One stone. That morning they have a drink again: this time coffee, and like last time they just talk. Jackie puts on some music and they go back and forth just like last night, the only difference being the topics at hand. She plays The Delfonics and Max likes the music. The camera frames Jackie lighting a cigarette as the music starts up, underlining once again through song that Max loves her. My favourite conversation in the movie revolves around aging. Jackie asks Max how he feels about getting old and he says he feels okay about it. He was losing his hair at one point, but he did something about it and now he’s comfortable, but the question was a huge smoke-screen for Jackie to open up about a bigger topic: her own fear. With this arrest hanging over head she’s afraid she’s going to lose everything and she ain’t got much to begin with. Max listens. He really listens. The image cuts back to him multiple times during Jackie’s conversation just hearing her. He may not realize it, but that’s all she needs right now. She’s made her mind up on what she’s going to do about the government and Ordell hanging over her head, and she just needs him to hear her speak, and tell her that he’ll be there for her. He does as much with a little bit of flirting thrown in for good measure. Partners in crime. Partners in love.
Later there’s a scene where Max buys a Delfonics cassette. In day to day life we make memories through song. When couples dance at their wedding they tend to have a song picked out, because it has greater weight or meaning for the people in question. No one else at the wedding needs to know the context of this song or how it got to be important. These things just happen organically. For Max he’ll never be able to listen to the Delfonics the same way again. They’ll always be Jackie Brown, and for me, Jackie Brown will always be the relationship these two characters had.
An elder said there was only two and she wasn’t one. From above he decreed that this is how things would be and how things were. Fate handed down from masked figures, perceiving the future. Prophets and clerics with scalpels and gospel in their words. She grew up in the grips of many gods who said she’d be one way and not the other. Racing to the cliff of a death sentence they couldn’t foresee. With hammer on stone in the force of her voice she twisted the fate they handed down for her and walked a different path. One of blasphemy, a bottomless pit, Gomorrah. Hers. Flesh bent under her own will, with new definition. New commands. Crashing waves in the chaos of truth and the bed of Lilith that she called a home. Cast into hell for having lived a life and seeking more. She was covetous, a prophet of her own, with clipped wings in a torn babydoll dress. Crucify me in the arms of womanhood if you must. Acknowledging you were wrong. A lineage of Hester Prynne. The Witches of Salem. Yoko Ono. The imperfect woman. The shapeshifter. The transgressor. The snake. She knew all of this to be true, and in their scrolls they knew it said the same. All it took was one bite, to want more, when she knew hunger. She finished the apple, and threw the core into the soil. Only a shell. Soon, it would be something else.
I’ve always really liked the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. There’s this girl and she’s clasping onto Dylan’s arm as tightly as she can. It looks cold outside in that way filmmakers romanticize about when they make films about New York City, and when I look at this image I can hardly blame them. The girl has the biggest smile plastered across her face that I’ve ever seen on anybody, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever had a moment that brought me as much joy as this girl is experiencing in the presence of Bob Dylan. I’ve never done any research about who she was or what her relationship to Dylan might’ve been, because for me that would destroy the illusion of the emotional simplicity of the image. I look at this image and I know exactly what Bob Dylan means when he sings “She gave him a rainbow”. Doesn’t matter to me that the real meaning is probably tied up in anti-war sentiments, because love can have two definitions. Dylan knows this too.
I get really swept up in her eyes whenever I listen to this album. They’re so wide. Clear. Honest. I know the feeling of having my head pressed up against the brown leather jacket of someone I care about on a cold day. But even if I didn’t have that experience there’s so much texture in the image that looking at it means feeling the same things that this girl does. The second track on this album is Girl From the North Country and I wonder if that song is about her. This album is filled to the brim with images of war and songs that would become protest anthems and then songs of nostalgic days gone by and then golden oldies and then history, but this song slipped through the cracks. Dylan re-recorded it with Johnny Cash years later and it’s become the go-to version of the song since. On this album it’s like a port at sea, where the author gets lost in something that’s slipping away right in front of him. Her soft yellow hair. Mine’s yellow too. In December of 2014 my husband and I were walking in the woods in his hometown. It was cold, but I didn’t mind, because I was underneath his arm. Like the girl with Dylan. When I was a kid I always wondered what being a woman would actually feel like and I have no clearer answer than this song. When we were walking home it came up on shuffle and it lifted something cinematic out of the air during our first Christmas together. I always hated Christmas, because I never got what I wanted. We kissed in that way people do when they talk about old Hollywood, and he put his hand on my breast and this song was given new context.
We kept walking through the woods until we approached the cemetery where his grandfather had recently been buried and I placed my hand on the cold grave, but I didn’t feel alone at all. There’s something spiritual about hope and memory and longing and my husband tells me that his grandfather would have liked me. Bob Dylan is now about the age of my husband’s grandfather when he passed away, but it doesn’t feel like Bob Dylan could ever die. He feels more than human somehow. I grew up with his music when it was already considered American history. He’s no different than Abraham Lincoln or Betsy Ross or Mickey Mouse. When I listen to Dylan it’s easy to get sucked into his gravitational pull with the currents of his words and the prose I might not ever understand completely. Listening to Dylan is sometimes like reading the Bible. It feels just as sacred, more even, and we give songs and artists a god-like stature because to make someone feel an emotion with such clarity is the same thing as righteousness. The same thing as grace. Bob Dylan is god. Judas for some. But when I look at the front cover of this album he doesn’t seem so large. He’s boyish, and he’s cold just like her. There’s the smallest glimpse of his lips brimming. A secret smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. When Dylan sings it comes across like hymns or psalms or a call to arms, but on the cover of this album his mouth is closed. In this image he’s human, just like this girl. Walking the streets of New York City, just like everyone else.
Matt Lynch’s brilliant letterboxd account he has stated multiple
times that “no one is shooting action like this” in reference
to the John Wick films, and he is correct. Chad Stahelski and Keanu
Reeves have introduced a new language into action cinema, one that
they refer to as “gun-fu”. It’s a new language that you would
assume many would attempt to copy, but few have even attempted to do
so. It speaks to the level of skill and technical brilliance one has
to have in order to establish something that is unique only to its
own world. Right now Stahelski and everyone associated with John Wick
are reaching greater, newer heights in action cinema that years from
now we will pinpoint as special in the same way fans of genre do so
for the likes of John Woo and George Miller.
the John Wick series introducing an entirely new cinematic language
in the clear, graceful way Keanu Reeves moves through a mountain of
enemies in an isolated space it isn’t like we haven’t been
building to this moment. Chad Stahelski is a director with a
distinctly unique take on action cinema, but much of what makes up
“Gun-Fu” is emphasizing building blocks of action cinema past,
and the fact that the John Wick movies are in conversation with the
full breadth of action cinema makes them utterly delightful for those
of us who love genre. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what
makes Stahelski and Reeves form so special it is important to first
underline what actually is “gun-fu”. To be very blunt, it’s a
mixture of musical choreography, judo and gun violence. Stahelski and
company are comprehensive in their movement, blocking and setting.
himself has even compared this to dance in interviews. The
central figure of the mayhem is Reeves’s Wick and the camera
follows his movement. It’s in lock-step with how he processes
battle. The dozens of enemies he kills aren’t given weight, because
it is intoxicating to watch him clear a room. They do this by never
giving them facial features. These are the men and women who have no
chance at killing John Wick. The bigger threats are introduced by way
of dialogue and larger set-pieces, but Wick has become popular
largely due to these instances where Wick empties a room. If you pay
close attention to the violence it’s all relatively simple, clean,
and effective, much like Wick himself. He never exposes himself in
the environment and the most necessary aspect of his own defences
happens to be taking an arm or another limb and manipulating their
body so they cannot fire a gun. He does this through a series of
judo-throws, rolling armbars and leg-takedowns. If his enemies can’t
use their hands, they can’t fire a gun, rendering them useless.
This is the fundamental truth of John Wick and in cinema this has
been around since Akira Kurosawa made Sanshiro
Sugata in 1943.
Mixed martial arts has been massively popular in North America going on fifteen years now. With the introduction of UFC to Spike TV in the mid-00s it opened a public audience up to an entirely new world of physical combat and sport. Cinema has only been catching up relatively recently. Gina Carano’s expert work in Stephen Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) was the first shot across the bow of introducing an action cinema obsessed with mma. In a closed-quarters scenario encounter in a hotel room with co-star Michael Fassbinder they ushered a new kind of physicality to action cinema. Made all the more intoxicating due to the gendered nature of the fight. The consistent idea of women in action cinema is to use agility, speed and techniques such as head-scissors takedowns and movement that verges on professional wrestling’s understanding of lucha to keep up with the stronger, more physically domineering men. In Haywire though she stands toe to toe with Fassbinder and uses limb manipulation, positioning and a scientific approach to understanding the human body to gain an advantage over her opponent. None of this is sexualized, and it’s maybe the best action sequence in any movie this decade for everything it would come to represent going forward in the physical combat of pictures in Hollywood. The John Wick films essentially work around the same ideas of understanding the human body, and in John Wick 3 the curtain is finally pulled back. John returns “home”, to the people who taught him, and what are they doing? Amateur wrestling and Judo. It’s a cinema of the human body, and in an age when green-screen stands in for much of the action in Hollywood produces it is overwhelmingly satisfying to watch a film that understands the human body can do things so much better.
Chad Stahelski doesn’t just
get his kicks over MMA though, and the other aspect of carnage which
inspires his action cinema language comes from first and third person
shooter video games. The notion of clearing a room of bad guys is
fundamental to making John Wick a satisfying action movie, and that
is also what makes the video games that function on the same idea
work. He doesn’t use cinematic form to copy the games, but to
manipulate their function with that of cinema to create a symbiotic
effect. No possible target is ever killed off-screen. We can see them
in frame coming and in real time we see John Wick react. Pins to be
knocked down, but it’s in that split second of recognition that we
see through Wick’s eyes. We can understand his thought process as
soon as he moves to take an arm or fire a weapon. Stahelski worked on
The Matrix films
as a stunt-coordinator and a lot of the CGI in those movies functions
similarly to video game action and anime of the period which
emphasized the very best aspects of those mediums. He learned well
from The Wachowskis to use everything.
John Wick 3 even
reaches back to wuxia during the final confrontation of the film.
This series of movies is gun and martial arts obsessive, but above
all else the human body is the ultimate tool. When confronting two
assassins hired to kill Wick he finds himself completely outmatched
and outsmarted. He keeps reaching for his gun to put them away, but
the gun doesn’t work in this scenario. It’s obvious signalling.
When they knock Wick down and reach to kill him they let him live,
more interested in proving themselves than spilling blood. They’re
honoured to fight with him and Wick understands that in order to
compete with them he has to disavow the gun. Instead, he takes off
his belt to make up for his slower movements compared to their
ability to fight with small knives and great agility. He has to be
smart and when he eventually overcomes them he lets them go.
Understanding that this was an exhibition. That may seem strange to
some audiences who aren’t familiar with martial arts from the east,
but for anyone who loves Lau Kar-Leung it makes perfect sense.
The John Wick movies are a
total overdose of action cinema unique to the mind of Chad Stahelski.
If you follow the insides and outs of the genre it is infinitely
rewarding to see where the filmmakers are pulling from with each
film. In earlier John Wick pictures they used EDM and pop music
structure to introduce battle, and now they’ve fully come into
their own as a total representation of everything action can be and
stand for. There’s nothing new in the plotting of John Wick 3, as
much of it revolves around the same rules and mythos of the
high-table and notions of honour and revenge, which is beginning to
resemble Yakuza politics more and more. The reason why people come to
these movies is the action sequences, and outside of maybe Paul W.S.
Anderson there’s no one better in mainstream Hollywood at the
moment. I can’t wait to see where they go with the fourth film and
beyond. As Matt Lynch said, “No one’s making action movies like
Revolution must happen. Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) knows this in the depths of his soul. He knows the world was taken from humanity so he tries to find his own personal Jesus to change the course of history. God, by way of the Oracle, has already told him that “the one” would save Zion from the corruption and decomposition of Earth. Herein lies his faith. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) accepts the responsibility of joining a guerrilla military operation to overthrow the machines he joins the religion of the underclass, and like Christ he has to find his divinity within his own humanity. Choice and belief is paramount towards any religion, idea or decision and for Neo the choice is between a rejection of the truth, and therefore a complicity in the violence of the oppressive class, or the potential hard life of the soldier-activist-god to make both himself and the world a better place. Neo chooses to believe
Lily and Lana Wachowski are filmmakers who choose to believe as well. Their belief, like that of their heroes Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Speed Racer, Corky and Violet, is in the creation of their own destiny or their own meaning in life. When asked about viewer experience during The Matrix in 2012 Lana Wachowski respondedi “Can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist…And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” You have to decide for yourself.
This belief in the power to choose is what drives the Wachowskis’ narratives, and their conviction in the the possibilities of human decision-making also informs their empathy, love and understanding of characters and the world. They trust their audiences to ponder the actions characters take, and whether or not the end-goal is worth the difficulty along the way- this is definitively humanistic. Because The Wachowskis work with hero narratives they create earnest, endearing movies, showcasing the understanding they have in the flawed, bold, decision-making of their heroes,whether they’re making good or bad decisions. This has made them two of the most optimistic authors in the whole of genre cinema. But it is their ability to transcend subgenre after subgenre while navigating these ideas of choice and destiny that truly makes them interesting and worthwhile artists.
In their first film, Bound (1996), The Wachowskis uncork a tightly wound bottle of vintage film noir eroticism. The story of Corky (Gina Gerson) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is in the visual eroticism of touch. Throughout the picture The Wachowskis linger on body parts, as if evoking Claire Denis through a lesbian lens, and while the film never quite reaches the levels of human contact in her pictures it remains a worthy route to examine a same-sex romance powered by lust and held back by societal and personal roadblocks. In Barbara Hammer’s seminal 1974 short film Dyketactics, she practically rewrote the book on female queer sexuality through a cinematic lens. In that short film Hammer focuses on hands as a tool of the orgasm, shot in close-up the stimulated vagina, and used dissolves to gracefully move her camera in and around the female body. For Corky and Violet it’s also all in the hands.
In Bound, the Wachowskis work in this same mode, and while they cannot utilize the daring, open, female nudity of Hammer’s erotic political short due to studio restrictions, they channeled her spirit. With the help of sex consultant Susie Bright, The Wachowskis were able to tell the story of Corky and Violet authentically, and the images of their open sexuality became resonant within queer themes in cinema. The films opening moments play out with a standard femme fatale first impression like Humphrey Bogart meeting Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, but both in Bound both of these characters are women. Corky with short hair, dark jeans, and a white tank with paint stains all over her clothes is resolutely butch. Violet, in contrast, is introduced wearing a slinky black cardigan, a low-cut dress exposing cleavage, and perfectly applied make-up and styled hair. She’s a trophy wife of mob lackey Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet is perfect, doting, passive, feminine, and always pretty as a picture, but she has secrets she keeps behind closed walls. She’s gay, and she’s going to steal Caeser’s mob-cash while framing him along the way.
All in all, Violet’s plan is a Hell of a way to come out of the closet. She needs a partner though, and what started out as a seduction quickly turned to love for Violet for Corky. Violet needs to untangle herself from a marriage to the mob, but Corky has past demons of her own, including a 5-year prison sentence for robbery. What unspools from this narrative yarn is an exercise in queering the noir while also playing into its tendency for tightly woven stories of bad men and worse women who scream cinema by their sheer presence, a quality that Tilly and Gershon have in spades. Gershon is evoking the world-weary toughness associated with your typical, almost always male, lead. Her sarcastic drawl, stiff upper lip and constant raised eyebrow in the face of adversity are from a woman who has lived through it all so give it your best shot. She’s going to come back fighting. Tilly on the other hand uses the preconceived notions about her intelligence and demeanor to get what she wants. It’s classic stereotyping. She’s a ditzy girl who needs looking after, but that’s only what she wants men to see, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’s smart, with a knack for planning and getting what she wants, because she knows how to use her own power.
Bound is the only film of its type that The Wachowskis ever made, but some of their directorial tendencies they’d come to be known for are present. One stylish sequence, where the plan Corky and Violet have concocted plays out in real time while they deliver the explanation of said plan in the past tense, recalls the opening race of Speed Racer – it’s a deft means of handling exposition.. In that race, Speed’s backstory is delivered as a young kid watching his deceased brother try to set a track record in a heated race: his brother’s ghost serves as his own personal pace car. In their usage of camera wipes, The Wachowskis clearly define the heroes, villains, and everyone in between by capturing these characters at various points in the lifeplot of the film before leading up to the end of the race. Essentially all the cards are laid out, and every character is given a motivation and an alignment that plays out in the movie. The wipes are used to deftly move through their life with overlapping rhythm, which delivers all the background of the movie in one scene. The Wachowskis, are, after all, moral filmmakers, and believe in the choice to do good. Robbery is not usually something akin to grace, but for the oppressed to rob from the rich, à la Robin Hood, in Bound, it reverses a sin into a blessing. Corky has to make the choice to align with Violet, and does so out of a blossoming love between the two, and Violet has her own decisions to make regarding her coming out. The Wachowskis pay close attention to how these contrasting forces clash, and in the end Corky and Violet, the heroes of their narrative, overthrow Caesar, the mob, and the straight world.
Frequently, Corky and Violet are framed with walls, closets or doors disrupting the onscreen space. After the two of them have sex for the first time a closet door is seen with a sunbeam coming out of the cracks. This is the possibility of the belief in the self that is frequently present in their theology. Corky and Violet remain together in the film, as true loves succeeds (another theme in their work), and The Wachowskis call back to their focus in tactility. In the final moments Corky and Violet clasp their hands in Corky’s brand new pick-up, riding off into the sunset, ready to conquer anything that may come in their path. It recalls and corrects the sisterhood-trumps-all ending of Thelma and Louise, but Corky and Violet aren’t platonic and they didn’t have to die for their freedom, which is a radical message in and of itself for a movie about queer characters.
The Matrix begins in a similar fashion to Bound, but instead of a tracking shot in close detail through a closet, the camera moves through the neon greens of text, code and computerized language in a digital zoom. The introduction of computer altered camera-work is the first noticeable addition to The Wachowskis arsenal, and becomes something of a calling card throughout their career with Hong-Kong influenced martial arts refashioned through an American lens of computerized athleticism and wire-work. The influence of the first action sequence would be copied for years to come in pictures ranging from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Inception (2010), but the effects of bullet-time, slow-motion martial arts, and wire-work are hardly ever as graceful as they are in the green, dilapidated cage of The Matrix.
In this first sequence, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is ambushed by police officers and agents after her secure line with Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is hacked. With her hands raised behind her head, a police officer approaches in a split-diopter shot, followed by a medium shot of her breaking that same police officer’s arm in a moment of fluid camerawork and coherent action storytelling. The scene becomes legendary when she follows that strike with an aerial kick to the face and the camera follows her in a slow-motion 360 degree pan. The scene concludes with a Jackie Chan homage when Trinity kicks a chair into a police officer’s face, runs up a wall and escapes after dispatching a final police officer. All of this is completed with simple, logical action that gets the viewer from point A to point B, with the added inclusion of reality-bending camerawork to add to the allure of the unreal nature of The Matrix. This scene sets the tone for the entire franchise.
The Matrix is set up immediately as a chase film. Trinity’s escape of the agents in the opening scene is a smaller part of a larger microcosm of the trilogy as a whole. The structure of unseating the power of the Machine City in which the A.I. Lives and controls human existence through the computer programming of The Matrix is always dependent upon the resistance group being in motion. There are certainly moments where the philosophy of The Matrix takes centre stage, but these moments are only brief stages of calm before an oncoming storm hits once more. This is most notable in the second film The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus, Neo and Trinity attempt to free the key-maker (Randall Duk-Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). The Merovingian portion of the film is a series of interconnected sprawling action sequences intertwined with well-constructed geography set amid an endless highway that treats humans like Frogger and cars like Burnout. Funnily enough before all the guns are drawn the Merovingian utters “It’s only a game. It’s only a game”.
The Merovingian is a man/program of class. He has underlings, won’t be seen in anything less than high fashion and even has a trophy wife (Monica Belucci). The class systems of The Wachowskis’ films have always been drawn with relative frankness and easily definable imagery. This is most significant in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending, but dates back to The Matrix and even Bound on a micro level. They are filmmakers of the underdog and the defeated heroes who fail along the way only to learn their worth and the importance of their morals. Reaching a philosophical high ground has always been important to The Wachowskis and while they’ve never discussed the nature of Christianity or Buddhism in their process it seems to inform their character decision-making.
The Merovingian’s mansion is laboriously programmed with fine marble, exquisite portrait, and crests bearing his initial “M”. Holding the wealth, even in a computerized world is sinful, and his ties to the machines who place the humans inside The Matrix only make him more dastardly, just like Royalton in Speed Racer. The destruction of his mansion then carries the weight of the falling class system, and the nature of justified violence when provoked. The Wachowskis seem to take a lot of joy in the destruction of his statues, utilizing the slow-motion bullet cam technique they popularized in the first picture by showing each piece of his constructed wealth crumble. This informs the narrative of class for the chase at hand and the potential world-saving skills of the key-maker who must escape. For what is freedom and wealth if not gate-keeping? Jupiter Ascending ponders this very notion as well. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a house cleaner from a family of first generation immigrants, but she’s also the heir to a throne on the planet Jupiter. It’s the kind of Young Adult novel plotting that has seen such success with movies like Divergent and The Hunger Games, and like those movies Jupiter Ascending asks questions about power and how we use that power for good or evil. Jupiter finds herself thrust into a world of wealth, power, beauty, and limitless resources. She can have it all at the expense of others and rule her land, but Jupiter is bereft of corruption. When the curtains are pulled back on the House of Abrasax she recoils. Jupiter Jones is gifted her own version of a key by way of her inborn right to power on Jupiter, but like Neo and company she resists and attempts to overthrow a corrupt higher power. With a key you can enter that world and shape it in a radical way.
In the first portion of the Merovingian sequence, Neo fights off a group of the Merovingian’s servants, all of whom are holding sword-based weaponry, in a circular room. The round room works to the Wachowskis favour, because of the circular camerawork and swift pans that they had mastered at this point in their careers. The action resembles the choreography of the great Lau-Kar Leung, and takes obvious inspirations from the pacifist nature in his movies, along with the hero’s journey of finding himself with discipline and hard work. In the first film, Neo learned Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts techniques almost immediately, but when it came to learning how to jump across a building it meant failing on numerous occasions.
In Lau-Kar Leung’s pictures, the hero has to be humbled before he can find strength, and Neo follows that same path. In The Matrix Reloaded, he is a master of craft and in full belief of his god-like abilities to move inside The Matrix. The Wachowskis achieve the effect of fluid grace among invincibility in the fight with more wire work and attention to weaponry and geography. The structure of the room is displayed through the camera movement as Neo moves up the stairs, down, back up and down again. The symmetry of the room creates a nice cohesion between the movement and the image and when Neo finally lays waste to all of the Merovingian’s henchmen the camera settles for a moment in a long shot to show a perfectly symmetrical shot of Neo standing among the bodies with the room decorated by debris in equal measure.
A quick look of concern from Trinity when Morpheus says “freeway” is enough myth-making to relay the danger of the road they’re about to travel. The minimalist storytelling of that line delivery is carried over into the chase where one highway becomes an endless straight line into hell. The beauty of the sequence is in the juggling of movement between cars and the hero-villain dynamic. Overhead camera shots create a push and pull between the moving vehicles and cars crash when bullets plunge into their metal flesh. The passerby vehicles become aerial at any destruction creating a confetti effect behind the action and eventually tumbling in front. Evasion becomes key to survival and with the added problems of internal fist-fighting in Trinity’s car between Merovingian’s chief twin henchmen and Morpheus the scene becomes almost unbearable with adrenaline. The clear minded camerawork, and lack of gritty, visceral impact moving the camera out of the action create poeticism between the action and movement as they become one. When tensions rise to a boiling point with death inches from our heroes, Neo flies out of the sky like Superman and saves everyone from the reaper’s hand.
The action between vehicles in The Matrix Reloaded was a good test run for The Wachowskis Crayola-anime dream Speed Racer. Lily and Lana have always owed a real life debt to anime for directly inspiring the work they created with The Matrix. The Matrix, after all, looks like it came directly from the same world as Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell with its rainy dystopia of green-gray-black imagery peppered with philosophical leanings and questions of the body. Considering their love of anime and East Asian filmmakers The Wachowskis should have known better than to adapt Speed Racer with an all white cast standing in for this Japanese story. It’s a blackmark on what is otherwise, their most formally daring work to date. One can’t look at Speed Racer without commenting on this issue and grappling with it to some degree. It dampens their thematic interest in narratives of the people and righteousness, and in time will look poorly upon them as we advance as a culture into a more progressive age. As is, Speed Racer is one of their best films, but it cannot reach the upper echelons of their finest works, Bound and The Matrix for this reason. It fits comfortably in their filmography, but not without bringing up this fault in their creative process, which they clumsily made once again in their worst film, Cloud Atlas.
In Speed Racer, The Wachowskis wanted to make a real life anime, and they did this by using high-definition video cameras and placing the foreground and background in focus to replicate the animation style. To this day no other film looks quite like Speed Racer due to this effect. The jarring adventurous use of camera wipes to replicate the turning of the page in Japanese manga and kaleidoscope editing tactics unfold with images layered on top of each other in successive fashion to create a colouring book of supercharged rainbows, peach-amethyst sunsets, and dizzying races that previously only existed in animation and video games.
The Wachowskis use all of these techniques to deliver a narrative that is not unlike that of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Like Neo, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is faced with a decision about where he allies himself in a war for preservation of the world. Speed has to either race for the Royalton corporation or choose his humble trappings as a family owned driver on the big circuit, and by refusing Royalton Speed would be risking his career, because they own Racing. Speed’s father (John Goodman) is completely distrusting of Royalton Owner E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Speed chooses his family and sets about to unearth the corrupt business practices infecting the racing sport he loves so much. For Speed racing is his religion and this task is his own Zion, and Royalton with all his cronies is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the machines that rule the world.
For Speed to save the world, he needs to win The Crucible, a Wacky Racers meets Death Race 2,000 (1975), underground race that cost his brother his life when he was blackballed from racing professionally by companies like Royalton. Speed Racer picks up where The Matrix Reloaded leaves off, but instead of including practical effects, Speed Racer opts for digital craftsmanship and technical perfection in the movement of vehicles. In the various tracks of The Crucible, cars fly as much as they drive, and driver skill is built as much upon belief in their vehicles as ability. When Speed eventually wins The Crucible with help from Racer X (Matthew Fox) and finds his way into the Grand Prix, he has his chance to change the world. It’s a beautifully sculpted sequence of neon hot wheels gliding in high speed. Paint swirls and colours bleed into one another, and the only constant image is Speed’s determined face. Meanwhile, using the wipe editing, Speed’s backstory is relayed once more, showing us the stakes of Speed’s mission. Racing is his life and he believes in the power of doing what you love, and believing in what you love. Winning the race means saving his loved one, and he drives his heart out drifting and crashing, flying and spinning in mid air, and ultimately finding a way to burst through the walls of racing’s blackened history and into a checkered whirlpool like an inverse of the spiral image of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
Speed’s relationship with racing is built upon an earnest, sincere love, and his destiny to make his family proud. Neo had to believe in himself to become a god and save the world, but more importantly he wanted to save Trinity whom he loved with all his heart. He brought her back to life once, but he couldn’t do it a second time in The Matrix Revolutions, but in her final moments she got to see the Sun, and she remarked it was so beautiful. The Wachowskis make their movies on these larger emotional moments. These moments of pure cinematic magic where their admiration for character and earnest want of love come through whether it be platonic or romantic. They traverse subgenres of action cinema like Anime, Noir, Young Adult and Cyberpunk, but their heart remains the same and they’ve always been filmmakers of sincerity, even when the world gets cynical. We all need something to believe in and The Wachowskis give us that through their movies, which believe above all else we can define our destinies and become heroes of our own story.
In the documentary, 30 Days of Hell, which chronicled the making of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Rob states right before shooting the motel sequence that the real horror is in making audiences feel for victims and by extension they’d experience vulnerability themselves. He wants audiences to feel awful; to feel scared. I’ve always liked this thesis on horror, and as I’ve grown older myself and began to truly understand my own fragility and vulnerability that comes with having a body like mine I’ve gravitated towards horror films that truly reckon with that central idea. The fallout of horror, or horror in post, is more interesting to me than “of the moment” scares. It is in the aftermath of violence where you can truly analyze horror and its place in a real world as it pertains to bodies, power dynamics and the thin line between life and death. Films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Something Wild (1961) and Halloween 2 (2009) investigate how someone copes with horror, both in real time, and in day to day life. A true misconception that horror movies repeat over and over again is the notion that everything can be okay after you’ve experienced a horrific event. If you’ve killed or escaped the monster in question you’ll be fine, but this is a lie. There is always scar tissue. If your body is damaged you will carry that injury forever. In Halloween 2 this extends far beyond Laurie Strode (Scout-Taylor Compton) and reaches outward, touching an entire community and everyone who came into contact with Michael Myers. It’s one of the smartest films ever made about trauma and the aftermath of violence, because Rob Zombie understands it is never a singular event. It’s a domino effect, and for Haddonfield, damn near everything has been touched by the terror of Michael Myers.
The upheaval of Haddonfield from your everyday American small town into a wheezing husk, still in recovery from violence, is almost a mirror image to what happens over the years in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I’ve compared the work of Rob Zombie to that of David Lynch before, in the similarities in shot selection at the end of his remake of Halloween (2007) to that of Laura Palmer screaming bloody fucking murder in season three of Twin Peaks (2018), but I think this comparison extends beyond just that one specific scene and what it conveys. If you look at the world of Twin Peaks in the early 1990s, shortly after Laura Palmer has been killed, it is one of bright oranges and browns, with beautiful wooded paneling inside every house, and sunshine. The Haddonfield of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake is similarly lit brightly, with the amber warmth of everything people love about fall, but if you look at his Halloween II fall has turned to grey. The sun never shines on Haddonfield after Myers returns to that quiet town. Halloween festivities aren’t fun when you can see on the outskirts, advertisements for books and landmarks celebrating and monetizing the terror wrought by Michael Myers. It’s a sidelining of the actual victims. The loss of a soul. Likewise if you look at the newest season of Twin Peaks there is a similar sense of loss. A crime that shook the rafters and changed the town forever is now commonplace. Violence just is, and in terms of form, the movement of Lynch from film to digital robs Twin Peaks of its beauty. A shadow has fallen on this town, maybe forever. The choice to move from the 35mm of Halloween (2007) to super grainy 16mm in Halloween 2 gives the film a rough texture it wouldn’t otherwise have. It mirrors what’s happened. How can there be beauty in a place where all elegance has died? It is difficult to move forward when you can still see the scars of the past.
In a previous essay I compared Laurie Strode to an exposed nerve, and this is never more true than in her relationship with fellow survivor, and best friend, Annie (Danielle Harris). Annie is a “constant reminder” for Laurie of the horrific event involving Myers that happened two years ago, because she has visible scarring on her face. They love each other, like sisters even, but trauma and horror has created a chasm between the two of them that’s willing to fracture their relationship entirely. Laurie and Annie find themselves in screaming matches with one another on a frequent basis, because neither can reconcile the previous event and move forward. It’d be downright impossible to ask them to do so. Annie’s father, Sheriff Bracket (Brad Dourif), tries to comfort both, but fails to do that for any consistent amount of time. He’s taken in Laurie and he treats her like his own daughter, but he cannot broach the topic of trauma that divides them. He doesn’t understand it. He will soon.
They feel like a family, but there’s this chilly coolness in every room in that house willing to shift and warp the scene under its grip, and the same could be said for Haddonfield. Parents brandish guns in attempts to murder Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who they blame for creating Michael Myers and then profiting off of the death of their offspring with his true crime book. Even Loomis has slipped off the deep end, unwilling to confront his own guilt and the horror he experienced, instead trying to gain some level of agency over the events by shaking them off in a foolish attempt to distance himself from the blood. Sheriff Bracket would threaten to kill Loomis, after finding the bloody corpse of Annie later, in what is one of the most empathetic, graceful and downright upsetting moments in the history of horror movies.
In the films of Rob Zombie death matters. He wants you to understand the motivations behind victim and murderer alike, and that equality between the two makes his work downright strange in the context of the genre. Wes Craven attempts this in his earlier films like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but neither reach the formal highs that Zombie accomplishes when he shows us how Annie dies, and why it’s awful. When Myers confronts Annie he appears like a monolith before her, she doesn’t see him. She barely comes up to his chest, her body swallowed up in the void-like appearance of Myers’s dark clothing and frame. When she discovers Myers she retreats, and Zombie uses slow-motion to let the moment hang on for longer than comfort would allow. Annie knows she’s about to die. The sound falls out entirely except a thrumming hum of static. She runs, but then the screen goes to black and still images of her retreat are edited in along with soundclips of her terror. We can only hear her scream. It’s up to us to determine how she died. When Laurie finds her much later Annie’s covered in blood, approaching death, and Laurie is despondent. She knows exactly what has happened, but she doesn’t run away. She doesn’t care if Myers is still in the house. She stays with her friend and sobs, begging her to stay with her. Scout-Taylor Compton’s harrowing pleas of “Annie don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I can’t live without you” sever the heart. This scene of Laurie sobbing over her dead friend lasts minutes. We have to sit there and feel what she feels. All of the guilt, shame, grief and love she had for her best friend spilling out of her in wailing sobs. Scout Taylor-Compton goes as deep as an actor can go, and it’s so easy to feel everything she’s conveying as an audience member. Because Zombie holds the camera for an extremely long time on this scene it’s impossible to shrug this off as a death that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a kill count movie. Everything matters. She only abandons Annie when Michael knocks down a door with a wooden axe.
This is a slasher film that aches. There is no enjoyment in the bloodshed here. Only sorrow, and that’s compounded later when Annie’s father answers the 9-1-1 call that came from inside the house and upon arriving discovers his daughter’s body. He’s warned by other police officers not to go in there, but he pushes them off and screams “Where is she?!”. Dourif is rigid here, barely keeping it together, a volcano of all encompassing grief about to erupt out from underneath him, but he has to see her. He has to look at his own baby girl to know that she’s gone and when he does he falls. A wail escapes his lips and he slams his arms down, rejecting what his eyes obviously see. He grunts “NO” before finally giving himself away to what he’s feeling and he sobs for what he’s lost and how he’s failed her. That would be enough to set the scene apart in the lexicon of Slasher movies, but something special happens: familiar music starts to swell in. It’s music that was used in Halloween (2007) before Deborah Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) killed herself watching Super 8 movies of young Michael after she realizes she’s lost her family. It’s a sense memory for viewers that recalls the familial tragedy of the first film, but then an image of Annie, no more than seven years old, holding a loving dog in her arms, with an innocent smile across her face appears on screen. We cut back to Sheriff Bracket laying on the floor crying, and then there’s Annie again, as a child, with an entire life to live. Maybe it would be a good one. Maybe it was before violence. We have to ask ourselves these questions. We have to consider her. Bracket is helped out of the room, but he’s mentally gone. He holds himself together with a memory of her, his love for her, and what made her a real person. The girl who just got a puppy. All he’ll ever have from this point forward is a memory. This is the true nature of the death of a character, but the tragedy is in losing someone who very obviously lived a life. We grieve for Annie in that moment, because her father does, because Rob Zombie’s form mirrors Sheriff Bracket’s sorrow.
At this point, it’s very unimportant if Michael Myers lives or dies. He’s already taken everything from this town and its people.
If there is a message to take from Rob Zombie’s Halloween films it is that violence is not singular, but wholly ruinous in the lens of someone. When we look at the news each day and see that another violent murder has happened, or another school shooting has claimed another life we tend to internalize this as something that couldn’t possibly happen to us, but violence does happen. It’s often random or ambivalent, but it’s there in the outskirts of our lives and it stains. Someone lost somebody and a life matters to someone. It reaches out, makes the world strange, and modifies the way you live your life if you were lucky enough to survive, but there’s no moving past it without it affecting you. It’s a scar. You don’t have to dwell on it, but you know it’s there.
Transition feels light. Like a flowing riverbed, curving in and out of rocks that broke free when you spoke your name, and claimed your flesh. No longer was she something without form, or grace, heavy in her step giving way to something agile, something free. Twirl for the first time in your bedroom with that skirt you have hiding under your bed, but put it away before the shame takes hold. Take the same skirt out a little later and let its fabric touch the skin, and the sun, yours for all to see. It comes with a little belt to cinch the waist, to pull you into being, but it’s icing on the cake, because you already let the word “woman” escape your lips. At this convenience store there are a lot of girls going about their day. Another girl is taller than you, another shorter. Average by the grace of god. Just another girl in a group of girls, because you made her be. You only came down for a pack of spearmint gum, but this ended up being more, a birth, a witness, a claim. Not a boy in sight. Not even you. Spearmint always feels chilly, but she’s never been so warm.
Mima Kirigoe (voiced by Junko
Iwao) is a pop idol. She’s the lead singer for the J-Pop band CHAM,
and she’s about to perform her last show, before leaving the music
industry to try her hand at acting. Working security just below the
stage is a man who looks disturbingly out of place. He is a black
hole amid the glow of the stage design’s birthday cake pastels,
ballerina costuming and upbeat, bouncy pop music about lost love and
the possibility of romance. He is ghostly pale, with raven’s hair
draped over the right side of his face. His eyes are noticeably small
(placing him in direct contrast with the large, expressive eyes that
normally accompanied anime characters at the time). He doesn’t
speak or emote much at all until he sees Mima. He is enraptured in
her every movement, gesture, and pivot. He points his arm out toward
her. Director Satoshi Kon fixates on this man’s point of view as he
sees Mima with a mixture of lust, possessiveness and envy. The image
blurs around the corners to force Mima into clearer definition, and
from this man’s forced perspective Mima dances in the palm of his
hand like a ballerina music box. She belongs to him in that moment.
He will do everything in his power for that to be true forever. Mima
has no knowledge of his existence. She continues to sing…
A woman learns early that her
body isn’t her own. It’s a disorienting effect to walk down the
streets and have the peace of mobility disrupted by the howl of the
everyday man, who was also taught a lesson in his young age: that a
woman’s body is his. It could be the unwanted touch, the snap of a
bra from the class-clown at the onset of puberty or the later
realization that your own choice of whether or not to have a child is
up for debate. You can point to your doctor and say something’s
seriously wrong, because menstrual pain is overwhelming and
debilitating and not be taken seriously. You can even stake your
claim that you are a woman, in flesh and blood and soul, and need
hormone replacement therapy and be told to further prove your own
validity to a professional who knows your body better than you. In
day to day life, we can retreat from this reality in the space of
bedrooms that we turn into our own, in the company of friends who
share similar concerns or in the locked doors of an apartment you
barricade yourself within when things get too heavy, but these spaces
are shrinking with time. Our reliance on the internet, and the
integration of social media into our own reality is cleaving the body
as a safe space. The internet crosses all moats, strides across all
barriers and knocks down all our doors. On the internet, anyone can
have access to you at any time, and we have welcomed that reality
with open arms, and women, by and large, have been the victims of
this dissolution of distance between reality and the online world. We
should own the right to exist freely in our own bodies, but we do
not, and now, anyone, any time, anywhere in the world, can make that
a reality. We are passengers in our own skin, the meat upon the
market; the dolls boys play with.
Mima is being watched. There is
an initial image of the apartment complexes fading into the horizon
of a pitch black sky, but in one window we can see light and a woman
moving about. The camera pulls in until we realize it is Mima
rummaging through her mail. She’s been given a letter which simply
gives her the name of a web address. Because she doesn’t have a
computer she has no concept of the internet or what a url even means.
It’s practically a foreign language to her, but our stalker doesn’t
know that and persists regardless. The opening shot in this scene of
the camera pulling in could be from the stalker’s point of view in
some consideration and the letter only makes the scene more
horrifying, because Kon is forcing us to sit in this predator’s
shoes and consider his mindset, but in addition to that we know Mima
is defenseless. The letter is a dare, to excite the stalker and pull
his victim closer into his webbed trap. Mima, being ignorant of what
this letter actually means, brings it to her manager Rumi-Chan the
following day and she knows exactly what a url is, but also doesn’t
see malice in this language. Rumi-Chan helps Mima buy a computer and
later sets it up in her bedroom. When she visits the website, which
is like a LiveJournal about her every moment in day to day life, she
doesn’t see the violence therein, but merely thinks someone really
knows her well. She pulls the curtain closed, but that act doesn’t
bring safety. The internet makes such precautionary measures
meaningless. What Mima doesn’t realize is that by engaging with
this website, and reading it, she has already been violated. She
cannot be herself if there is another, separate entity, framing her
in a different light, and claiming to be her. There is the Mima that
is real, and the one that is perceived, and the internet blurs the
soul of the two.
The camera rests on the closed
curtain. Forcing us to look for far longer than is
comfortable. Many movies about voyeurism, even popular ones like Rear
Window and Blue Velvet, use the act of the voyeur as
audience surrogate to incite thrills above the art of becoming
uncomfortable in the act of looking where one is not supposed to
look. To Blue Velvet’s credit David Lynch understands how to
utilize time in an effort to enhance future discomfort. This is most
prominent during the first interactions between Isabella Rossellini
and Dennis Hopper’s characters which turns violent, uncomfortable
and abstract very quickly, but this is not without the thrill of Kyle
McLachlan looking around the apartment first. The fundamental
difference between Rear Window, which is all thrills, Blue
Velvet and Perfect Blue is that in the latter examples
there is the danger of the voyeur being caught, which makes the
audience less complicit in the act itself. There is morality there,
but in Perfect Blue there is no chance of being seen. We’re
too far away, but looking nonetheless, and Mima has no clue
whatsoever that our eyes are upon her. This is the psychology of
movies in a nutshell, and by placing the central question of
voyeurism in a shell of female vulnerability the images become
complicated, knotty and uncomfortable, because we are looking from a
position of power, as a predator, and she is there to be seen. The
brilliant thing about Satoshi Kon, however, is that in time he blurs
the image until we have no control over what we’re seeing. We
become lost at sea in the narrative of his characters and become
unsure what is real and what is fantasy, and who we are looking at to
begin with, and that is never more the case than with Perfect
Mima begins her new job the next
day and one thing is clear: The old Mima is dead. Meet the new Mima.
While Mima was in CHAM she was the perfect pastel ideal of femininity
in the sugar coated lyricism of Japanese Pop Music, but now she’s
moved into pulpy trash television. The show she is working on is a
riff on The Silence of the Lambs, and judging by its barely
there plotting built upon transgressions, blood and violence, it
would have fit in right at home in the budding market of Japan’s
V-Cinema contemporaries from the likes of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi
Kurosawa. Mima only has one line in her debut appearance, but
immediately she’s surrounded by the grisly carnage of filmmaking,
as the producers quickly decide to make her character a rape victim,
with multiple personality disorder. This is where the producers say,
“It’s fine. Jodie Foster did it, right?”, but Mima’s
concerned about her image, and so are her agents. She decides to do
it, because she wants to be a “real” actor, but this begs the
question, “why is this the most valued cinematic image for a
woman?”. I fully understand that the limits of genre force
characters into boxes, most of them being heavily gendered, but that
still doesn’t negate the fact that for a woman to survive in this
fictional world of movies, and in the real one, they often have to go
to psychological extensive extremes that men do not have to. In order
to be taken seriously as an artist, if you are a woman, you must give
your entire body. That is the commonly held idea of our societal
value in movies.
While Mima is coming to grips
with her decision to go through with the part, the man with the
raven’s hair can be seen in the distance, tearing a hole in the
scenery, much like he did at the concert. He doesn’t fit anywhere,
but he’s there, watching Mima, completely unnoticed. As an image,
this is a powerful metaphor for the daily life of being a woman. You
can be free, to a point, but the lingering shadow of potential
violence and trauma stemming from gendered persecution doesn’t
dissipate. Men will always be here, and we will never know who may be
the villain of our story. We pray we never find him, but we know we
have to look. The internet, by extension, makes this even more
difficult to parse. Everyone has access. Anyone can reach out and
make life strange, worse, torturous if they choose to do so.
Mima begins to realize the
website dedicated to her isn’t a joke after the person claiming to
be her insists the Mima who is participating in bikini photo-shoots
and tv shows that involve rape isn’t the real Mima. This unsettles
her to the point where she realizes she is now in danger, and the
person who has been blogging as her online is not a benign entity but
something altogether more insidious.
were one of the only countries to have a finger on the pulse of an
incoming world that would be completely online. It was during the mid
to late 90s when anime properties like Serial Lab Experiments: Lain
(1998), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Perfect Blue (1997) began to
paint a portrait of a world where there was no distance between the
version of you that was flesh and the doppleganger of your own
creation that existed online. At the same time the United States were
making films that are now, in hindsight, not at all revelatory on the
topic of internet anxieties. These were films about internet rebels:
hackers, thieves and spies, but that wasn’t everyday people. In
Japan, it was high school girls, entry-level musicians, and police
officers who became entangled in the problems of the internet.
Hollywood wouldn’t make a worthwhile film about the internet until
The Matrix (1999), which was heavily influenced by anime. We have to
look to Japan to understand our looming future. What these initial
films signal is strikingly similar to our own current state of
existence on the internet. In the context of Perfect Blue, it isn’t
different from the real life stories of online harassment actresses
Marie Tran or Daisy
Ridley experienced after the image of Star Wars shifted into
something that immature manchildren rejected. The sad state of
things, however, is that a lot of women who are online have gone
through similar experiences of abuse without the benefit of being
able to log off due to the intersecting roles of capitalist
structures within an online world. For those, there is no respite
from the dangers of the internet.
central question women have to navigate on the internet is, “How do
you have agency over your own body when there is no escape from
outside forces?” Before the internet there was the seclusion of a
personal home or bedroom, but these barriers do not exist when every
house has a wifi account. Google maps has pictures of your street if
someone wants to find it, and with social media there are pictures of
everyone everywhere. Social media at its absolute best is the
possibility for positive connection, but one would have to be naive
to think that there wasn’t something vicious lying under the
surface that could find its way into your life if necessary. Perfect
Blue is brilliant, because it has a fundamental understanding of
these problems. For Mima the inability to escape her stalker, either
online or in day to day life, causes her to misinterpret her own
body. She begins to lose herself in the role of the character she’s
playing on the show, and she doesn’t recognize herself anymore
after the decisions she’s made, in large part, because she’s been
reading her stalker’s blog. This blog is essentially a gaslighting
tool that has caused Mima to question her own validity and truth. The
loss of any and all agency is the greatest crime her stalker has
committed, and he has done this all in the guise of being a hurt fan.
all comes back to that opening shot of the ballerina dancing in the
palm of his hand. That’s the key image to understanding how the
stalker, now going by Me-Mania, interprets his relationship with
Mima. Mima belongs to him. Things escalate, as they tend to in cases
like this, and Me-Mania finally confronts Mima after a long day of
acting has caused her to be completely lost in her own thoughts, and
he attempts to rape her. Me-Mania is framed and shot like a hovering
reaper before this moment, a harrowing villain drawn to look as ugly
as humanly possible. He’s an intimidating presence, but the
strangest thing happens when he speaks: he’s pathetic, whiny,
petulant, complaining that he didn’t get what he wanted. Thus the
core problem of toxic masculinity: ownership of women, the dolls boys
play with. The producers took advantage of Mima, because she was a
young actor, her fans revolted when she made the decision to become
an actor, and her agents question every move she makes. Mima
continually fights for her own agency, and the ability to merely be
herself, but when working in an industry that essentially asks
viewers to take a part of you this is almost impossible. Doubly so
with the advent of the internet where everyone is now the star of
their own following, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
We are all now Mima.
Perfect Blue is an apocalyptic slasher, the ultimate crystallization of everything we came to fear about the internet before it became synonymous with living. In the 90s, anime had a rougher sheen, images had more texture and the genre arguably saw its zenith as an art-form\\ with the likes of Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyzaki and Satoshi Kon pushing the genre forward in creative modes that have since been largely ignored in favour of clean, almost exclusively digital images computerized into a perfect package of sunny, un-challenging narratives. Perfect Blue sits in the middle of these two eras as a perfect, magnum opus of everything that would come to pass about a life entangled with the internet, while challenging viewers with everything that situation would bring. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s the real one.
It is difficult to know within the deepest pits of your body that you’re supposed to be a mother, but you cannot conceive. It’s living with a whirring dissonance whose volume depends on the circumstances of any given day. We by and large don’t consider that trans women may want children. We are told that we should be happy having the physical and many of the same biological characteristics of cisgender women, but we never ask trans women questions about pregnancy. In my case, being an intersex trans woman with an underdeveloped, non-functional uterus and incompatible genitalia, I feel particularly close to something just out of reach. The need to be a mother and my inability to act on that overwhelming, heavy, internal desire, with my own body is my own cross to bear. I’ll never get pregnant. I’ll probably never have a child of my own.
But I have this image of myself as a mom that I carry around with me on harder days. I have a daughter. Her name’s Rachel Erin Maclay. I can’t give her life, but I can give her space in my own mind. I can carry her with me, and even if I can’t manifest this idea of her into flesh she still resides within my own body. I don’t think that’s nothing. She is a fragment, an idea, a possibility, and through all of this I can see her. She exists here, in my heart and soul, and if that’s where she always is, then I will be thankful that she has given me that much. As her mom I know I will have done all that I can, having rammed up against the edges of the limitations of my own body, and still kept the idea of her alive.