Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Films: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sucker Punch

I sort of wish I'd saved these two movies for film club because they have a lot to discuss, but I've been waiting forever to watch both of them, so hopefully some of you have seen them and will discuss anyway!

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a really effective, creepy, and well done look at the way a cult can utterly destroy the fabric of one's psyche. There's this film critic I read (even though I hate myself for it half the time because he comes across as super pretentious and condescending--he makes a lot of good points, though, so alas) that mentioned Elizabeth Olsen's relation to her more famous sisters--the twins-- almost as if she should be ashamed of it, and for some reason that got me interested in the film. But...I'm also interested in cults and group think and how this stuff works.

I really liked the narrative structure of the film, the first thing we see is Martha leaving the cult and calling up her older sister. And then we start to see these two worlds side by side, her past with the cult and her present difficulty in adjusting to life outside living with her wealthy, married sister. She acts strangely at her sister's for example, she goes swimming with no clothes on, and you think...why? And then they flash back to the cult and kind of show you how these different behaviors were normalized for her.

And the cult isn't like this super scary thing, I mean I could really feel the appeal of it, this idea of living on a farm, and everyone having a role to play and forming a new family together. And some of the stuff they'd say felt like church a bit, this idea of opening up and trusting one another. Always having people around you who love you, I mean you can see the appeal in that, especially since we're led to understand that Martha had a rough time of it in her family. And while nothing's really clear or explicit I don't feel like it has to be. Maybe we'd like to think that it's only from the worst most broken abusive homes that people who make up cults come from, but sometimes it's possible to just feel like the odd one out, to never really connect with your flesh and blood family in the way you'd like. I think longing for community and love and understanding is as close to a shared human desire as there is.

The behavioral deviations increase as Martha stays with her sister and so does the intensity of the cult. The ugly side comes out...each girl is drugged and raped as an initiation into the cult. And they are taken aside by the woman who has mentored them and she tells them it's a good thing even though it might not feel good. It's all really awful, to be honest. And the thing is that Martha has a really hard time adjusting to life with her sister and there are these moments where the things she was taught in the cult break through, like these ideas are so deeply ingrained in her that they come up as an automatic response when she's put on the spot or in a really tight or uncomfortable position. Like even though she constantly reassures her sister that she doesn't blame her for anything (and that relationship alone is pretty fascinating--her sister tries to do right by her, but often it seems, as a way of absolving her own guilt) she still reverts to ideas from the cult when a discussion about her skills and talents come up and you have to wonder exactly what these sisters were like before. And since the cult leader is male and initiation is rape you can pretty much guess that the women in the cult are second class citizens, treated as less than human, regarded as possessions in ways that are made clear in other scenes as well.

And of course you're wondering what made her leave, and as her paranoia increases on the outside, the temperature at the farm increases in the flashbacks until you understand why she left and why she's so afraid.

The ending is...ambiguous? But, for me, it didn't matter because the meat of the film was never going to be in how this story resolved but in the way her time in the cult affected her ability to function and live as a normal human being. It's really well done.

Also! The title is brilliant. Martha is her real name, Marcy May is the name given to her in the cult, and Marlene is this name that every woman in the cult takes on when answering the phone. The film is basically the story of Martha trying to figure out which identity is really hers, but even the progression of the names in the title show how she goes from being an individual to a part of a collective and the story is Marlene trying to become Martha again but never being able to fully leave behind Marcy May. This film is rated R and with good reason, her initial rape is shown and also there's some other nudity.

So when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was like LOL yeah right. Another movie about girls fighting (I love fighting girls tho, Buffy, Nikita, etc. don't get me wrong!) but they are wearing these clothes for the benefit of men. I was kind of disgusted and I didn't want to see it at all. And then I read this review at Julie Clawson's blog that totally changed my perspective on the film and made me want to watch it and I'm really glad I did.

The film itself is a brilliant exploration of the history of the struggle against patriarchy. It portrays young girls who have been betrayed by imposed fathers (step-fathers and priests) being shut away and taken advantage of because they are women. Their attempt to escape this imprisonment is depicted through dream sequences that use Jungian symbolism to show them entering worlds typically controlled by men (church, battlefields, fortresses, technology) and conquering them in order to escape them. They had to play by the rules of those worlds and demonstrate that they could dominate in those realms in order to move past them. It is a deconstruction of those realms that leads to a better world for the girls.

I mean doesn't that make it sound like the most brilliant thing ever? So I watched it and to be honest I really really liked it. I liked it for a lot of superficial reasons, I liked the style of the movie, for example, and the music. But because I'd read Julie's review prior to watching the movie, I had it in mind which helped me a lot in understanding it. Things exist in two realms in this movie, there's the "real" layer where Baby Doll accidentally killed her sister and is being locked away in a mental asylum by her stepfather to await a lobotomy. And then there's the world she escapes to in her mind which is a brothel. In the brothel, Baby Doll is like this amazing dancer and when she dances everyone is mesmerized. So while yeah ew gross, they never show her dancing, when she dances she's actually escaping in her mind to a fight. (the aforementioned scenes by Julie) So that's where the fighting takes place, it all takes place in Baby Doll's mind while she dances. Each time she dances there's an objective she's trying to reach. And also there is no killing of the humans, it's all like dragons and robots or men that are already dead. (not one man is killed in the film, though lots of girls die. That's not because it has serious gender issues...the men in this movie are all pretty gross and meant to be that way..but because the film is depicting the reality of women)

So yeah the girls in the movie are dressed up in these costumes but, I don't know how to express this, the movie doesn't sexualize that. There aren't shots of them being coy and flirtatious, Baby Doll is never shown dancing. I feel like the point was to show just how much these girls were viewed as objects and possessions in the world they inhabited but obviously there was so much more to them.

I'm not saying it was perfect, there are things to be questioned like why Baby Doll's guide is male (and does that matter?) and the choice of a brothel as her escape world (though I've read enough explanations on this to satisfy me) but I think this movie is so much more than the reviews gave it credit for. Like I was seriously deflated to read reviews that dismissed the movie as sexist because the girls were dressed like they were and fighting. I mean it's confusing for sure, but I feel like there's a lot of interesting things going on in the movie that are worth discussing. This is another review I liked. Sucker Punch is rated PG-13, btw.

Have you seen either of these two movies? I'd love to know your thoughts!


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