Films To Watch With A Twelve Year Old

The ‘parents guide’ section of any given movie on IMDb tells you what to look out for in these films. My kid saw these but not all can.

Boy (a New Zealand film)

Sci-Fi

Gattaca

Artificial Intelligence

I, Robot

Horror

A Quiet Place

The Ritual

Carrie

The Others

Anime to watch while you’re still a kid

Princess Mononoke

The Cat Returns

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

A Letter To Momo

Wolf Children

Wolf Children and Grave of the Fireflies are also great but the latter in particular is very sad. Wolf Children is probably more sad for adults than for kids.

Kickass older teenage girls

Whip It!

Juno

From The Edge Of Seventeen

Dumplin

We Are The Best! (Swedish, and hard to find)

Lady Bird

Films for adults which a 12-year-old would probably understand

About A Boy

True Grit (either the old or the new one, but the dialogue in the old one is easier to understand)

Talullah

Kings of Summer

What Maisie Knew

Boyhood (it’s long, needs an intermission)

Mud

Panic Room

Flightplan

Gritty but good for discussion:

Thirteen

Into The Wild

Samson and Delilah

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

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Jane Campion’s The Piano Film Study

The Piano Film Landscape

The Piano (1993) is a lyrical, fairytale film written and directed by Jane Campion, set and filmed in New Zealand near the beginning of white colonisation.

SETTING OF THE PIANO

Like many creative New Zealanders, Campion comes from Wellington. I don’t know why so much creativity comes out of the Wellington region, but I suspect it has something to do with the dramatic landscape and its harsh climate. I don’t dismissively mean that the weather is so terrible that people have nothing else to do but stay inside and make their own fun. I mean, when you immerse yourself in New Zealand’s most outdoors settings, you can occasionally be struck by a sense of awe, and that awe carries over into your work.

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Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

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The US Office Character Studies

The Office poster

The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.

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My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.

For instance, in Toy Story 3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.

In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie (above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.

My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.

When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.

Reiko Okuhara

Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:

  1. A film which appeals to all ages
  2. without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
  3. Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
  4. experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.

I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.

Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.

We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.

Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.

SETTING OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

JAPAN

I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.

The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.

If you visit Japan you can explore a replica of Satsuki and Mei’s house.

If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.

ERA

It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.

Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.

Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.

Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.

The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.

Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)

However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.

Shrooms: the universal symbol for hallucination?
IS THIS A UTOPIA?

Does the setting of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.

Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.

Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.

Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:

This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.

The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.

However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:

[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.

Little White Lies

THE MEANING OF TONARI

Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)

PORTAL FANTASY

One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.

It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.

Reiko Okuhara

MYTHOLOGY AND INTERTEXTUALITY

One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).

Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO: THE JAPANESE WIZARD OF OZ?

We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.

Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.

Little White Lies
THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF

If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?

Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.

When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”

In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)

But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?

Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.

The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.

Bright Wall, Dark Room

I’ve been thinking about how much Western storytelling trains us to expect that writers show the audience where they’re going right up front. Main characters have to be introduced right away. Twists have to be foreshadowed. Inciting incident in the first 10% etc. BUT Many of my favorite stories, especially Asian ones, don’t adhere to these “rules.” In My Neighbor Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear until 30 mins into a 90 min film. The slow sense of discovery makes the film enchanting. Can you imagine any American film waiting until the 33% mark?

@FondaJLee

But look a little deeper and My Neighbour Totoro is a tightly plotted fantasy with a classic mythic structure.

A mythic journey will generally involve a road, a river, a train.

I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)

SHORTCOMING

Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.

Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.

There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.

Miyazaki also gets rid of the mother by making her too sick to care for them — a very common plot device in children’s literature, especially in America.

But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.

The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:

Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.

Rieko Okuhara

DESIRE

At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.

This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:

  1. Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
  2. Face their deepest fears (mythic)

OPPONENT

In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)

But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.

Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!

In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.

First there’s the father.

The father—almost like a Wise Old Man, another archetype figure—seems to understand the rules of the gods’ world and explains them to his children.

Rieko Okuhara

Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)

The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)

Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.

PLAN

Satsuki and Mei first explore their new house. If they explore every nook and cranny they will understand its mysteries. Ergo, they will not feel scared. Exploration of the scary house occupies a good chunk of the beginning. They find ‘soot gremlins’ — very much in line with the sort of creature found throughout traditional Japanese folklore, but actually invented by Miyazaki himself. In the West we have dust bunnies, which are more hairy than sooty.

In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.

Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.

Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)

Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.

More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.

ANAGNORISIS

Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.

When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.

This variety of Anagnorisis combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:

The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.

Reiko Okuhara

NEW SITUATION

No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.

Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.

THE ART OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.

COLOURS

Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.

Kathleen Hale. Orlando; a Seaside Holiday. First published in 1938. The cat vehicle is an old trope.
PERSPECTIVE

More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.

This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.

CHARACTER DESIGN

In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look.   On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books.   The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Verbal Diorama podcast discuss My Neighbour Totoro.

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Comedy Techniques In “This Country”

This Country is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary sitcom with two series so far (2017-2018). The story centers the misadventures of two cousins marooned in a small village in the Cotswolds. Most of their peers have moved on. Kerry and Kurtan are stuck in adolescence. They behave like typical Year 10s, despite being in their late 20s, early 30s.

Critics have said that the strength of this show is the ‘winning mix of heartfelt moments and punchy belly laughs’.

STYLE OF NARRATION

Mockumentary sitcoms are having a moment. The Office is perhaps what kicked it all off. (Charlie Cooper bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Gareth Keenan.) Of course mockumentaries wouldn’t work unless TV were full of reality TV shows, which is actually what they’re mocking — not actual documentaries. Another favourite of mine is Wellington Paranormal from New Zealand.

Daisy and Charlie didn’t originally write This Country as a mockumentary — producers saw that it was suited to this format and made it a requirement.

How did the producers know? How were they so sure? I can only guess, but if done well, the mockumentary mocks not only the characters but also the audience. There are many pitfalls for documentary makers, namely:

  • They sometimes forget about the larger world in which their project falls.
  • Documentary filmmaking is often extractive, and offers nothing good back to its subjects.

The mockumentary is also relatively cheap to make, and This Country was made on such a limited budget that the a large proportion of the pilot had to be filmed in a single room with just two people.

THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE

The danger of setting a mockumentary in a rural area: Storytellers sometimes position their own commentary as superior.

It helps that This Country is very much an #ownvoices story — real life siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper created it, wrote it and also star in it. They come from the Cotswolds themselves; their friends and family appear as actors. Unlike, say, New Zealand’s comedy character Lyn of Tawa, Daisy and Charlie really do speak with the accents used by their fictional characters, the Mucklowe cousins.

Here is the Lyn of Tawa character speaking in a broad New Zealand accent:

But Ginette McDonald actually speaks like this. (The video requires you watch it on YouTube.)

If you’re a fellow New Zealander those two accents will sound quite distinct, though I’m not sure non-Kiwis will hear the difference. Ginette McDonald was playing the house-o character of Lyn of Tawa back in the 1980s, though I doubt her routine would be so well received now. It carries a whiff of classism.

In contrast, the Coopers grew up in precisely the socio-economic environment they recreated for This Country, and have said as much in interviews. I’m sure it’s part of the humble marketing spiel, but they say their characters are basically themselves. (Jemaine Clement has the same public persona, suggesting that he never acts, simply appears.)

Another way in which This Country avoids patronising small towns: The narration that appears as words on the screen at various points in the show will be obviously distancing e.g., ‘Studies show that young people in rural areas…’

Here is the opening scene:

These ‘facts’ (stereotypes) are all familiar to the audience — we’ve all seen the media reports on crime, lack of opportunity and obesity in rural areas. These authorial intrusions into the story of Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe achieve the effect of poking fun at urban people who think we know all about rural life, but who glean the sum total of information second-hand, filtered by the unreliable media.

Poking fun both ways is quite a feat, given that the creations of Kerry and Kurtan exemplify these stereotypes exactly. Perhaps it depends partly on the audience to know that the lampoon goes both ways. (This is of course the danger of expecting a lot from your audience — an audience is equally capable of taking these stereotypes and running with them.)

CHARACTER WEB OF THIS COUNTRY

THE FECKLESS, NAIVE MAIN CHARACTER

Kerry Mucklowe, late twenties or early thirties. Thicc, loves her food.

She’s different from other female comedy characters – the focus is not on femininity. This is someone who is asexual, tomboyish, and the biggest unrequited love story is her relationship with her dad. She’s got nobody, and her life is a lot sadder than Kurtan’s. […] She’s so lost and is such a plodder, [Kurtan] feels a duty to look after her.

Daisy May Cooper

The main characters of comedies are often feckless as their stand-out attribute. You wouldn’t trust them with anything. They’re victims of their own whims and can’t seem to control their baser instincts. While everyone else can see they exist near the bottom of the local social hierarchy, they will step on the few who exist below them — elderly and disabled people tend to cop their wrath the most. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcQtilmZeU4

Kerry is very naive and insular. It would seem she’s never left her tiny Cotswold village. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piXcsnA5cJ0

She is at times very stupid, but this is lovable because she doesn’t take herself seriously. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bISOmcPa0MA

This is in contrast to her cousin Kurtan, who has delusions of grandeur. She does have her own comedic mask, but it’s not about seeming smart — she attempts to seem dangerous. (By the end of the pilot episode this mask has already come off and she is revealed to be hapless and ignored rather than actually dangerous.)

Kerry’s character includes some gross-out comedy, with her mother accusing Kerry on camera of failing to wipe her bum properly.

Other Examples OF FECKLESS COMEDIC CHARACTERS
  • Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean lives outside the social hierarchy — that’s how different he is. But he also has a mean streak.
  • Seinfeld’s George Kostanza is a wonderful example, but also Elaine and Jerry at times. George is the closest match to Kerry — he seems wily, but remember he also lives at home with his parents and is mostly unemployed, except for short-lived duplicitous schemes.

THE PETTY-POWER HUNGRY MAIN CHARACTER

Kurtan Mucklowe, around the same age as Kerry. He is skinny to the point where it’s useful for (he often takes his shirt off in comedic fashion).

While Kerry and Kurtan are similar in many ways, the writers have done a great job of making them distinct nonetheless. Kurtan is obsessive, turns into a megalomaniac when he gets a taste of power, fancies himself a bit of a fashion horse and is pretty scathing about old people and those he considers beneath him. On the other hand, he demonstrates great kindness and empathy at times, especially towards his cousin Kerry, buying her a soda stream on her birthday and saying it’s from her dad.

  • Not an obvious connection perhaps, but Kurtan is similar to Hyacinth Bucket in some ways. Both are very good at physical comedy (Kurtan because of his skinniness, Hyacinth because she is the Fat Athlete Woman trope, similar to Mrs Henscher in ParaNorman and The Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda — a woman who takes up ‘too much’ physical space and is stronger than her middle-aged woman status would have us assume. Both Kurtan and Hyacinth are power hungry, fixating in smalltown/suburban events as opportunities to exert their power and influence.

THE NICE CHARACTER WHOSE NICENESS IS TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF AND WHO EVENTUALLY REVEALS VERY HUMAN FRAILTY

Reverend Francis Seaton — the local vicar and erstwhile 80s popstar

When Kerry injures her leg at a sports event set up by the Reverend, the Reverend faces a moral dilemma. He eventually asks Kerry to lie, and say that she did not injure herself while playing sports. He has failed to get insurance.

When he fails to find a parking spot at the medical centre, parks illegally and gets booked, Kerry and Kurtan (by now our own viewpoint characters) watch him lose his shit.

The Mask is a vital component of any comedy (or thriller, in fact). Great comedy comes from that moment when a character’s true self is revealed. In this case, the Overly Nice is revealed to be nothing more than a mask which functions as a means to an end. The inevitable message is this: We are all equally human, though some hide it better. The other message is this: our feckless main characters may be terrible, but at least what you see is what you get.

TV Tropes calls this Beware The Nice Ones.

Feckless main characters with very obvious moral shortcomings do require a nice character to counterbalance their terribleness.

THE SCARY NEIGHBOURHOOD MONSTER

Mandy Harris — aspiring tattoo artist, bodyguard, erstwhile stalker and S Club 7 fan (she stalked one of the members). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFh_IhFNKFM

These scary characters will have over-the-top attributes — even more so than the main characters. But they wear their Shortcomings like Soul Toupees.

In the skit above, Mandy is revealed to be a trickster (of the prankster variety). She is volatile, a bully, and a loner desperate for human connection. She probably thinks Kurtan and Kerry are her best friends, though Kurtan and Kerry are revealed to be scared of her. If anything, Kerry models herself on Mandy — at least, the scary part. Mandy also exists to reveal the strong, take-no-shit mask worn by Kurtan, who crumbles in Mandy’s presence.

It’s important that the scary comedic character share some characteristics with the main characters. Mandy shares certain attributes with Kurtan and Kerry — she is basically childlike. This is revealed when she demonstrates an enthusiasm for collecting fluffy Meercat figurines.

But Mandy also has superpowers like a horror movie monster. This is introduced when we first meet her. She has superhuman levels of hearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcoDWApChLA

TV Tropes calls this trope the Brawn Hilda.

THE PEER OUTCAST OPPONENT

Slugs — breathes through his mouth, laconic, vacant.

Sadly, the actor who played Sluggs died earlier this year. Like the fictional character he played, Michael Sleggs had a terminal illness. He was a friend of the Coopers.

The Peer Outcast Opponent is a character who might easily be part of ‘the gang’ but due to some complicated backstory the main characters of the story can’t stand them. As a result, there will be a long-running, petty feud which never resolves. The audience is kept at a distance to allow insight into this fact: There is really no ethical/moral hierarchy between these tribes — they fight precisely because they are so similar.

Here’s the important thing about writing peer outcast opponents: Whether they get there via sheer dumb luck or by hook and crook, these characters often achieve the upper hand over our main characters who despise them.

Other Examples oF OUTCAST OPPONENTS
  • Seinfeld’s Newman. Unlike Sluggs, Newman presents as a wily trickster. Sluggs is a hapless one.
  • In Freaks and Geeks there is a bully who is revealed to secretly wish he was part of their nerdy gang.

THE OFF-SCREEN CHARACTER

Kerry’s mum, Sue, who only ever shouts from her bedroom upstairs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcnGNez9udw

Sometimes she reveals a little about herself e.g. “You can [come in] but I haven’t got a stitch on”. She is constantly asking Kerry to do things like get rid of the mushrooms growing out of the cups in her bedroom, but we do know she comes down from the bedroom to perform basic parenting tasks because she makes dinners for Kerry and leaves them in the warmer. (We never see this, though.) The comedy comes mainly from Kerry and her mother yelling at each other from different parts of the house and failing to understand each other.

This off-screen character can have any function at all, but they are linked by virtue of the fact that you never see them. You only ever hear them or hear about them.

There is also a logistical reason why we never see Kerry’s mum — she is voiced by Daisy May Cooper, who is playing her own mother.

TV Tropes calls this The Voice.

Another variant is The Faceless. In common with the Mask, The Faceless trope is utilised in horror as much as in comedy, but to completely different effect. What we can’t see is scary. But the unseen can also be anything we like, including an effigy onto which we paste our own shortcomings. The horror version of this is Norman’s mother in Psycho. (It is often a mother, in both comedy and in horror.)

This trope is related to The Ghost. In horror the ghosts are often actual ghosts.

Other Examples OF OFF-SCREEN CHARACTERS
  • In Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket usually gets a call from their son Sheridan, who we learn, from Hyacinth’s one-sided conversations, is completely different from the son she boasts of to acquaintances. Sheridan is a not very smart, always after money and, in typically homophobic 1990s gags, presents as gay to everyone but his own mother. Technically, Sheridan is an example of The Ghost trope because we never hear his voice, either. Sheridan does eventually put in a brief and wordless appearance dressed in full motorcycle kit. His face remains hidden by his helmet.
  • In Home Improvement we never see the full face of Wilson, his sage next door neighbour. Partly this is funny because neighbours are like that in real life — we see parts of their lives without knowing the full person. Partly it works because of Wilson’s Godlike advice to Tim.
    Wilson’s un-shown lower face became a contractual gag. Originally, he just stood behind a fence on stage. As the show progressed, Wilson was shown out of the house more and set designers went to town finding ways to keep the portion of his face hidden with props. In all these cases, he was never shown, being obscured by at least three props in the scene as he moved around the set. When the cast would take their bows at the end of filming, Earl Hindman would hold a miniature section of fence made of tongue depressors in front of the lower part of his face. There was one time Wilson appeared without any props in front of his face…but it was a Halloween episode and his face was covered in skeleton makeup, to the point where Tim didn’t realize it was him until he’d already walked out of the scene. — TV Tropes
  • Sometimes the off-stage character does eventually make an appearance. In the I.T. Crowd that would be the Goth who haunts the adjacent office. The mystery of the Goth lasted only one episode in that case — he hadn’t been introduced as a long-running gag.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS COUNTRY

The Desire line of each episode is often instigated by Kurtan, who has a very handy character trait — he develops a new obsession every week. Sometimes it’s Kerry who wants something badly, like seeing the steam engine exhibition. They share the role of being the instigator of an episode’s desire line. Although Kerry is lazy and unmotivated, she nonetheless finds things to do, whether it’s making an imaginary world at the dump or taking it upon herself to educate her younger half-brothers in fighting. Sometimes it’s the vicar who has a task for them, for instance Tea-Time with seniors.

The Opposition comes from all quarters, but a uniting feature of Kerry and Kurtan’s opponents are that they are revealed to actually want the best for Kerry and Kurtan, and for the village. For instance, the Reverend wants Kurtan to go to Swindon college, which stands in opposition to Kurtan’s desire to stay in the village and protect Kerry. Kurtan is fired by his boss at the bowls club, which makes Kurtan carry out a (failed) revenge plan. The big reveal is that the boss turns up to offer him some new hours. He’s not the big, bad opponent Kurtan had turned him into; Kurtan tends to think the worst of people, misunderstanding intentions, overestimating his own importance in their lives. Even Mandy is all elbows and trousers. (We never actually see her punching the blind man.)

Plans are small, and the characters take these plans way more seriously than any sensible viewer would. I have a soft spot for stories about people who do feck all, who don’t have the resources to achieve their dreams, but who nonetheless seem to make the best of their situation. New Zealand’s Bro Town is similar in that regard — young people walking around making their own mischief and fun with the occasional input of adults.

Small plans with small returns emphasise the smallness of the setting. Winning the scarecrow competition is so important to Kurtan that he cheats, lies and thieves for it. And because these characters are low mimetic heroes (stupid ones) their plans don’t work out. But rather than come up with a new plan they tend to freeze, unable to come up with new ideas. When Kurtan discovers his old boss has changed the code to the bowling club he is unable to leave the bag of pig shit. We see him struggle with this, thinking hard, failing to come up with a replacement revenge. Finally, he toddles back home with the pig shit — the joke is on him.

For this reason (among many) I believe Kurtan and Kerry are fictional examples of neurodiversity.

Battle scenes are often a tantrum, with one character smashing an object then immediately calming down. Picture books are often written like this, too. (The Cat In The Hat gets a significant mention in the special episode after season two.)

The Anagnorisis of a straight (non parody) story is often an optimistic, hopeful commentary on the nature of human kind. (Often but not always, of course.) In This Country, the expected Anagnorisis tends to be subverted. For instance, at the beginning of Season Two, we are told a lot has changed since we last saw them. Kerry is on a do-gooder mission. But she is really being generous for the accolades. When she fails to receive the accolades, she decides that being generous is overrated. You just get taken advantage of. She she’s back to being her ungenerous self by the end of the episode.

Because the Anagnorisiss keep Kerry and Kurtan arrested in their development as adult human beings, the New Situation shows us that the pair haven’t changed at all. That is the entire point. Once a comedic character achieves a character arc for the better, there is no longer series potential. And even when a lesson is learned, the character is unable to transfer that learning point to other, very similar situations.

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The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Storytelling

NARNIA LAMPPOST LUCY

So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.

This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.

NARNIA AS A MISOGYNISTIC, RACIST, DOG’S BREAKFAST

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)

Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?

C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST

Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.

Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:

  • Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
  • Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
  • Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
  • Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
  • All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
  • Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
  • Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)

That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:

I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.

The Weight of Glory, p 168

If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.

Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.

However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.

SETTING OF NARNIA

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe cover illustration by Roger Hane ( 1939-1974) portal
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe cover illustration by Roger Hane ( 1939-1974) portal

There’s an entire article on the Setting of Narnia at Wikipedia.

Narnia is a quasi-medieval world written in the mid 20th century.

I can’t think of a clearer example of The Symbolism of Seasons in Storytelling. Winter means death, summer means life.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.

C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).

The 1972 map of Narnia depicts a setting which is mostly forested, except for marshlands in the north. In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destructionFalse kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005 FILM ADAPTATION)

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is your classic home-away-home story with a mythic structure.

SHORTCOMING

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)

Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.

Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?

Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?

The Guardian

For more on that, see Liars in Storytelling.

In this new fantasy world she does not understand the threats. Narnia is a fascination to her. This is the shortcoming that could cost Lucy her life.

DESIRE

The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.

OPPONENT

Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)

The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.

C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.

Pauline Baynes,1922-2008, from the lion the witch and the wardrobe ,1950

PLAN

In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.

(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)

The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).

I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)

Gandalf White Witch

In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.

During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.

ANAGNORISIS

For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.

But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.

This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?

Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.

NEW SITUATION

When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.

The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.

Maria Nikolajeva

For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.

RELATED

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Secret door inside this wardrobe leads to a Narnia themed playroom

If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.

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Notes On A Quiet Place Film

A Quiet Place movie poster Emily blunt with finger to lips

A Quiet Place is a suspenseful 2018 film directed by John Krasinski, also starring John Krasinski. John Kransinski shares a writing credit with two other guys.

A Quiet Place is one of those films where if you see the trailer, you’ve seen the whole film. So don’t watch the trailer if you intend to see the film. Don’t read this blog post, either.

But here’s a teaser which does a good job of conveying the soundscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9wE8dyzEJE

Stephen King thinks it’s pretty ace. He thinks the soundscape is especially ace, and so did the people dishing out Academy Awards.

Stephen King quote about A Quiet Place, in which he likes it

I agree I was waiting for the film-makers to scare me with a loud sound, as a cheap trick after lulling me into a false sense of security with the silence, but I am happy to report they did not do that at all.

A QUIET PLACE log line

In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.

IMDb

THE TAG LINE

If they hear you, they hunt you.

Beautiful alliteration. It’s almost like they started with the tag line and built a movie around that…

THE PREMISE

I chuckled at what Owen Glieberman had to say about the premise:

A Quiet Place is a tautly original genre-bending exercise, technically sleek and accomplished, with some vivid, scary moments, though it’s a little too in love with the stoned logic of its own premise.

WHY DON’T THEY JUST…?

This is definitely one of those films which requires its audience to sit back uncritically and enjoy the tone. As soon as credits started rolling, my husband said, “Humans are pretty damn good at making noise.” When drawn on his point, he explained how it’s hugely unlikely that a few farm-dwelling types would be left alone to deal with this issue without authorities surely any but the most incompetent of authorities have the means to create massive amounts of industrial noise, pairing that with explosives to attract the monsters (who behave like moths to a flame) and kill them all at once. Doesn’t America spend a lot of money on its military for this exact scenario?

Don’t go there. Resist the refrigerator moments.

I personally don’t possess the ability to turn it off. My fridge logic started much earlier, when each member of the family is shown walking home along the railway line, each isolated rather than huddled in a group.

family walks down a railway line spaced apart

The youngest is plucked off, of course. In a setting like this, wouldn’t they huddle together? This weird spacing between family members was cinematic but unrealistic. The situation is lampshaded later when the wife regrets not carrying the son, especially since her hands were free. Regret doesn’t explain why they were walking home with that weird spacing between them. That small thing was actually my biggest issue, if we don’t count the ridiculous speed at which the basement filled with water. If you’ve ever filled a pool you’ll know it takes a lot longer than that. Or perhaps we’re meant to fudge the timing of events, in the same way we’re meant to fudge the timing of events in Thelma & Louise.

There’s also this, with meme made by College Humour:

why not go live near the waterfall

You never want the audience to go, “Why don’t they just…”

I didn’t think they should live next to the water fall the family needs to grow its own food. The family needs to live on a farm, now more than ever. But I did wonder why they didn’t more time there, just talking. It’s only a walk away.

“But there are supernatural monsters!” you might say (correctly), and if you can believe monsters instantly appear at the slightest noise to gobble people up, can’t you suspend your disbelief for the rest of it, too?

Unfortunately that’s not how suspension of disbelief tends to work. Quite the reverse the more unbelievable the premise, the more believable everything else must be, to compensate. I call it the One Big Lie of Storytelling that an audience will believe the really ridiculous fictions (lies) of storytelling, but will expect verisimilitude in every other respect, to keep that Big Lie solid. I’m sure it’s related to one of the cognitive biases, as we’re contradictory people in our  mundane lives, also.

This brings me to a feminist point, because in a story with One Big Lie, storytellers rely on The Every Man to carry the narrative.

THE EVERY MAN MAIN CHARACTER

I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman.

Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.

Marcie Bianco (@MarcieBianco) April 25, 2019

I read a lot of tweets only a few stick in my memory. A Black woman I follow once posted a tweet which said “I’m sick of seeing faces like this whenever I watch anything on the screen” and she attached a picture of John Krasinski as he appeared in The Office. The guy who looked conspiratorially at the camera just had to be a white man, right? We all get white men.

It’s true, Krasinski has the perfect ‘Every Man’ look, along with Steve Carell, Tom Hanks and [insert white male actor who isn’t too good looking but still really good looking if he was your neighbour].

And as well as using those quote marks around ‘every man’, it’s about time I clarified what I mean by the term, because there is nothing Every Man about the White Man. Even in overwhelmingly white USA, white men comprise only 31% of the population.

In contrast to the Alpha Man (Brad Pitt, Cary Grant et al) the Every Man has a specific function in story. This is the ‘uninflected’ character, with whom anyone of any gender is expected to identify. He is a lower mimetic hero than the Alpha Man (to use the terminology of Northrop Frye). The hope is that we can put ourselves in his position very easily, men and women. In children’s literature we have the ‘Every Boy’, who functions in exactly the same way. Hence, that old chestnut: Girls will read stories about boys but boys won’t read stories about girls. (Not true but also quite true, because of social conditioning.)

This Every Man archetypes works in storytelling (and in favour of white men) because we live in a world with white and male as default. (The cognitive bias affecting storytellers here is The Default Effect.)

This is not an argument in favour of the status quo. Until we see many more stories about non white, non men, the Every Man archetype will never die. No one else will be allowed to inhabit that wonderful spot known as ‘normal’ and ‘familiar’. But the Every Man John Krasinskis are the only ones achieving significant funding to make films starring themselves, and that right there is the problem.

I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman. Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.

@MarcieBianco

THE EVERY WOMAN

In some ways, A Quiet Place is an ensemble movie. Emily Blunt is the Every Woman. She’s white, in a heterosexual relationship, has children, wants children, cares for children, does the domestic work for her family. The Every Woman, I emphasise, is ‘Every’ only in relation to her husband, and because she doesn’t challenge the rules of patriarchy.

A note on the ending. After the Every Man husband is killed off, only then is the Every Woman wife permitted to bear arms and step in to save her family, in the masculine coded activity of bearing arms and shooting to kill. The character arc of the wife mirrors the character arc of a child in a coming-of-age story. Only by getting rid of the adults (her husband, in this case), is the vulnerable woman permitted to step up. With her husband there, and made vulnerable due to being (quite literally) barefoot and pregnant, she remains in the role of the protected. In one scene she makes her husband promise that he will protect them all.

character WEAKNESS

For storytellers, parts of A Quiet Place feel ridiculously on the nose. I acknowledge this won’t be a typical response, but every time I look closely at a story on this blog I look at the storytelling concept of character shortcoming. So when the main character in A Quiet Place to writes ‘WEAKNESS’ on a piece of paper, sticks it to the wall look at looks at this word as a reminder of mission to find and exploit the shortcoming in the enemy this is exasperating, head shaking stuff.

But is that just because I’ve done so much analytical thinking on this point? I’m reminded that by studying story we do ruin story for ourselves, in some ways. (And enjoy it better in other ways.)

John Krasinski has a writing credit on this film, though the spec script was written by two other guys. I suspect as Nice Guy Every Man, Krasinski had far too much trouble giving himself (okay, his character) some way in which the main character treats others badly. Characters with a moral shortcoming are far more interesting than those with only a psychological shortcoming.

The father has ostensibly treated his deaf daughter badly. She blames herself for the death of her youngest brother, and this is because of something the father has done, or not done. This is an underdeveloped part of the story. We never really get a sense of why she’d be so angry with her father. Instead, I believe the audience is left to rely on the trope of the stroppy teenaged girl, whose father can’t do anything right, even if he is trying his hardest. (Which he is he’s trying very hard to make her a hearing aid which works.)

A moral shortcoming is at odds with the Nice Guy Everyman Trope. An actor such as Leonardo Di Caprio can pull off moral shortcomings brilliantly. Di Caprio started out as an Alpha Man, but moved quite smoothly into the role of the Every Man, as we see him in films such as Revolutionary Road. He wrinkles his face into pained, vengeful contortions and is not afraid to play characters at their worst. Di Caprio therefore belongs to a different category of white guy actors, in the same league as Bryan Cranston (who played Walter White) and James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano), equally unafraid to explore the moral shortcoming of the characters they inhabit.

THRILLER OR HORROR? OR MYSTERY??

Why did Owen Glieberman call this movie ‘genre bending’? What exactly is this?

Last month I looked into the writerly definition of thriller, and how a thriller differs from a horror. I clarified for myself that many stories marketed as thrillers are in fact horrors. A Quiet Place is one of those horrors which has been described as a thriller. Interestingly, IMDb lists A Quiet Place as a drama, horror, mystery.

First, is A Quiet Place structurally a thriller or is it a horror?

Like a thriller, A Quiet Place focuses on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character. However, the main character is more ‘main family’, turning it into an ensemble cast drama we see the dynamic between members of the family.

Like a thriller, monsters, terror and peril prevail. We know this is a really dangerous world.

Many thrillers have romantic subplots.

Emily John A Quiet Place

The romantic subplot in A Quiet Place is between husband and wife, and is really only one scene, which makes this a little unusual in a thriller the romance is most often a budding romance, in which the (heteronormative) man and woman are thrown together by circumstance and tested by external forces, impressing each other with their problem solving ability and falling in love after shared trauma.

(I did think Emily Blunt and John Krasinski made a convincing couple, completely forgetting that they are a couple in real life.)

The monsters in A Quiet Place do not run on logic. They are drawn to noise as if by instinct. They do not run on their own understandable (to us) logic. This makes them more like typical horror monsters undefeatable. But these monsters do have a shortcoming, which makes them ultimately defeatable. This makes them more like thriller opponents than supernatural ones.

Why is this film listed on IMDb as a mystery? A Quiet Place does not outsmart the audience. In this way, it is far more thriller than mystery. I’m sure we all work out before the characters do that the monsters can be defeated by the high-pitched feedback that comes out of the daughter’s hearing aids. We sit back and hope the family works it out before they are killed off, one by one. In writing terminology, the viewer is in audience superior position.

What is the big question? The question is to do with the shortcoming, as mentioned above. If the viewers can work out the mystery of the monsters’ shortcoming, they can defeat the monsters.

A Quiet Place is most clearly a horror, specifically what has been called Isolation Horror.

A QUIET PLACE AS ALLEGORY?

A Quiet Place emphasises the vulnerability of the average person, and goes one step further by saying something or trying to about what it’s like to be deaf. This is a part of the theme I don’t understand. This is either because I’m not deaf, or because it really didn’t say anything profound at all. The monsters could be considered an allegory for the increased vulnerability of people who are missing one of the five senses. Even the hearing characters in this story are living like deaf people, unable to hear because they’re unable to make sound. They make use of American sign language. In this way, we are all encouraged to consider what it might feel like to be deaf.

It seems clear this film didn’t start out as an allegory about being deaf:

The kernel of the idea came to us when we were in college. We were making microbudget films and studying film history,” recalls Woods, who has been best friends with Beck since sixth grade. “We fell in love with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and all the things that can be accomplished without sound. We wanted to do a modern-day silent film that lived in the suspense genre.

Scott Beck

It was Krasinski who pushed for a deaf actress, which is absolutely the right decision when writing a deaf character. But that fact alone doesn’t make this a story about the deaf experience. That would have to be written by, ya know, deaf writers, not least because people who use hearing devices saw plot holes that the rest of us did not. Egregiously, the movie is captioned for a hearing audience.

Cast diversity is an important first step for Hollywood. Let’s not stop there. Others in the deaf community have been less grateful to simply see deafness on screen, and rightly so. This article starts off by describing the concept of ‘Deaf-Gain’ (a good thing) then goes on to critique the tired message that loss of speech is tragic.

In the end, to my dismay, I found “A Quiet Place” is actually yet another purveyor of the trope of disability being inextricably yoked to and dependent on technology, part of what disabilities scholars call “the medical model.” It instantiates the belief that technology providing a scientific and/or medical means of “curing” or normalizing people who are not “species-typical” is to be lauded.

“Sure,” the film seems to say, “ASL provides a good short-term ‘fix’ ― it can give you a way to communicate, and you can get by. But like the father’s ham radio signals, its reach is sadly limited; signing will only get you so far. You still remain silenced, imprisoned, forced into the margins. The only thing that will truly banish the ‘monster’ ― the only thing that will get things back to ‘normal’ ― is that screech of technological feedback.” Being deaf and signing is not enough. Regan needs her implant to restore the world to normalcy.

This is not a truly deaf-centric world. In this film, silence is scary ― at least it is for hearing people. The deaf people I talked to don’t seem to find this film all that frightening, because for them it’s not an unknown, it’s not a loss, it’s business as usual.

Pamela J. Kincheloe

Others have said A Quiet Place is a metaphor for the terror of parenthood, similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room. Possibly because this is Krasinski’s line, too.

THEME

Possible, undercooked allegory aside, the message of A Quiet Place is extremely conservative and non-controversial in line with the suspense genres in general.

If we can’t protect our children, who are we? Emily Blunt’s character asks John Krasinski’s character after beseeching him to protect them all.

I challenge a single member of the audience to disagree with the idea that protecting children is a bad thing.

There’s more to that, though. The idea that ‘family is everything’ is possibly becoming a little controversial as more and more human pressure is heaped upon our fragile planet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ideology of A Quiet Place seems outdated in 20 years’ time, as a new generation of viewers grow up under the threat of climate change. Many may choose not to procreate, in deliberate favour of returning the planet to its former equilibrium, last seen before humans left Africa.

BIRTH ON FILM

I’m sure anyone who’s had a baby gasped at the family’s decision to have another baby. Because babies cry. BABIES CRY A LOT.

The characters do have a plan they keep the baby in a box (like a little Moses the basement filling with water is basically a Moses scene). They also have some kind of ventilator on his face and I suppose they were drugging him to keep him quiet. If there’s anything morally controversial about this film it’s, should humans procreate in times of great stress? Is it ethical to bring new life into a dangerous world? Looking at human across cultures and across history, it seems to me that humans are especially keen to procreate in trying circumstances the more trying the circumstances, the more we feel the procreation instinct.

But first comes the birth itself, of course. I know it’s possible to give birth silently because a friend’s mother has always boasted that she didn’t make a sound. This sounds like a special kind of torture to me, but ladies be ladylike.

People who have given birth know that, the vast majority of the time, water doesn’t break like that, as an early sign of labour. Quite often the water has to be broken for you, in fact. This is an old Hollywood trick and hopefully most viewers know by now that just because it happens like that sometimes, it happens quite seldom.

There’s one birthing trope that irritates me far more, because I feel it is understood far less, and probably has an impact on real birthing pain.

I’m talking about the shots of labouring women flat on their backs. Unless hooked up to machines, in which case other poses are impossible, women in labour naturally tend to choose a very primal, unattractive, animalistic pose on all fours, weight forward at least. Unless medicated, lying flat on your back while giving birth is next level torture. Emily Blunt in the bath, basically on her back, already in pain from her foot, also in pain from contractions, is a heavily unrealistic scene for me. But Emily Blunt has herself given birth and presumably had some say in the direction. I can only conclude that Hollywood storytellers don’t care about this sort of realism, preferring the ‘pretty pain’ shots. I only hope that people in actual labour throw out Hollywood ideas of what birthing looks like going in.

Mind you, I don’t think audiences really want to know what real labour looks like. I’ve never seen a Hollywood actress poo during labour. Midwives actually tell you to shit the bed if you’re shitting the bed, you’re pushing correctly. And the amount of blood and blood-like fluid that comes out of a person during labour is more intensely horrifying than any horror film will ever manage.

Do women ourselves want the world to see us at our most base? I actually doubt it. So we all go on pretending that birth looks more like Emily Blunt in the bath. The particular labour of womb-owners remains largely invisible.

SYMBOLIC STORYWORLD

This is a setting reminiscent of fairytales, with humans living next to the ominous forest. Dark beasts come out of the forest. When humans enter the forest, they are facing their darkest fears. Forest equals the subconscious.

With the corn silo, the film-makers are also making much use of The Symbolism of Altitude. Characters in films go to high places in order to gain insight.

on top of the silo in A Quiet Place
1939 April, cover by Charles Sheeler
1939 April, cover by Charles Sheeler

The house itself is a Symbolic House. It falls into the ‘warm house’ category, with its candles and a whole lot of clutter I’d be getting rid of, since if something falls over they’re all dead.

A Quiet Place feels like a very specific wish fulfilment fantasy the wish to be self-reliant. I am vulnerable to this particular fantasy myself, ever since I read Little House In The Big Woods at the age of six. I loved that the Ingalls family had no dolls and made them out of rags. Even now, I occasionally watch Doomsday Preppers, part baffled by the display of conspiracy thinking, but also partly because I’m one step away from digging my own crazy hole and stockpiling cans of tuna.

The farm of this family is straight out of a picture book utopia, let’s face it. See also: Storybook Farms. There’s that big, red all-American barn, the fairy lights (which aren’t fairy lights, but look like that from a distance, in line with Stars Hollow of Gilmore girls.) Living self-sustainably is not pretty. Even on a highly successful self-sustaining farm, there are times of the year with slim pickings. I know this from my career in watching self-sustaining documentaries. But this family is depicted in a time of plenty, lifting smoked fish from under the floorboards like they’re dining at a fancy restaurant.

A Quiet Place cosy
high angle shot of table

There’s an idea trending in America that moving from the city back to ‘your roots’ (the country) is a virtuous thing to do, and that this is how to fix the huge city-rural political divide. Lyz Lenz wrote a rebuttal of that ideology at Vox: Move back to your dying hometown. Unless you can’t. I mention this here because films such as A Quiet Place depict rural life as a utopia, or rather an snail under the leaf setting, and it definitely ends with the characters about to return to a utopian rural life. America does tend to glamorise this life.

I cop to sharing the self-sustaining fantasy as depicted in this film, but I’m not such a fan of the return to a patriarchal order which dystopian stories so often revert to, without question. We see mother and daughter back in the kitchen. We see father training son to look after his mother. Men as protectors, women inside the house.

This is the fantasy of dominant, patriarchal culture.

And I don’t want audiences to just swallow that one whole, either, just because the outtake image is Emily Blunt holding a big gun. That’s where we’re at with feminism in Hollywood. This is fake feminism. This is a version of gender equality when the creators lack imagination, when they can’t fathom what society would look like without a patriarchy. The best they can do is women as patriarchal men.

I want to see stories dystopian or not in which people of all genders use their various skills to work together, without expecting masculine types to hold the guns until they’re killed off and cannot hold them anymore.

I don’t want storytellers to allow female characters their arcs only after killing off the men. It’s kind of sick and I’m kind of sick of it. How do we move forward as a society when we hold this ideology as the unquestioned ideal? If this is the fictional story we’re happy to swallow, will we question sending our sons to the slaughter next time war breaks out?

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Home » TV/Movies

The Wrestler Film Appearance vs. Reality

The Wrestler film poster

The Wrestler (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky remains one of the best, and also one of the saddest, films I’ve seen. Australia’s Margaret and David both gave the film five out of five stars.

Logline: A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.

The Wrestler is a tale of self-destruction, but self-destruction with thematic purpose. Its raison d’être is not simple masochistic pleasure this is a critique of entertainment industries, among other things. Most of the audience is neither a wrestler nor a sex worker. This story takes the concept of masks and work life (im)balance to create a widely relatable story.

The part of Randy the Ram was written for Mickey Rourke, inspired by the emotional arc of Mickey’s life (though we almost got stuck with Nicholas Cage). Cage agreed to the role once Rourke seemed unable to play it for obscure Hollywood reasons, but soon realised he’d never get bulky enough without resorting to steroids himself. Cage didn’t want to compromise his own health in that way. So the part went back to Mickey somehow.

Mickey Rourke didn’t write the story that was Robert Siegel but he did rewrite his own dialogue with the director’s permission. I’ve no doubt this is part of the film’s success. Writer Robert Siegel has also written a kids’ film about a snail (Turbo) and a baseball film starring Patton Oswald (Big Fan). The Wrestler is his standout success as a writer so far.

CONTENT NOTE

I watch this film through my fingers. If you have sensory issues around cutting, blood, needles etc. you will find the wrestling sequences of this film a challenge. But if you can watch them (and not just listen, as I did), apparently the pro wrestling is real, not just realistic. The actors are real-life wrestlers, and it turns out happily they can also act. This should be no surprise, since pro wrestling turns out to be a form of acting in its own right.

I also find this film so affecting that it stays with me for days. If you’re not up for that, avoid avoid avoid.

The reasons for all those details, by the way, becomes clear to me after reading something about storytelling by Celeste Ng, who read a whole lot of stories in quick succession for a project she was curating. She had this to say about the forgettable ones:

Why didn’t [many stories I read] work? Partway through a story about a couple at a party, secretly struggling with infertility and on the verge of falling apart, I realized something: the characters should have been desperately sad, but no one in the story actually seemed to feel much of anything. […] enough wasn’t said.  Those stories, and that shorthand, ask the reader to do all the work—of figuring out how the characters are feeling; actually, of feeling, period.  They assumed you knew what it felt like to be cheated on, or to lose a loved one—and that you’d feel the same way the characters did.  The authors seemed to hope you’d project your own feelings onto the character, creating instant depth, like a 3-D movie.  But what does that make the characters, and the story?  A blank screen. […] The best stories—the ones I still remember, months or even years after reading them, the ones that punched holes in my heart—didn’t assume anything. They didn’t use shorthand; they spelled out those feelings with painfully sharp details, so that by the end, you did almost know what it was like.

Celeste Ng

STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE WRESTLER

I imagine it went something like this:

Fictionalise Mickey Rourke’s very unusual rags-to-riches-to-rags life in the entertainment industry and then hire him to basically play himself.

I imagine it also went something like this:

Tell the tale of a pro wrestler, juxtaposed against the remarkably similar female analogue of sex work, to show that even when we know what we’re enjoying as entertainment is ‘fake’, the pain of these entertainers is real. Apart from the pain on display, there’s a lot of other human suffering within these industries that we may not have considered when dismissing our entertainment as fake and therefore completely harmless.

I also like this interpretation:

Real people are phoney wrestlers (from Wrestle Zone). Or, life itself is a wrestle power struggles with loved ones, with bosses, with our baser desires. Sometimes you’re the winner, other times the loser and sometimes life is brutal.

ESTABLISHING AUDIENCE EMPATHY FOR RANDY THE RAM

Sad stories make for good storytelling studies because they tend to be heavily character driven, and the creating team needs a good understanding of human psychology in order to affect the audience. Apart from all that, there are very clear tricks writers use when creating a story like The Wrestler. These tricks remain invisible to a general audience, but writers recognise what they are.

The more morally culpable the main character, the longer this ‘setting up empathy’ sequence needs to be. Randy is not exactly Tony Soprano. Randy the Ram is the fake, entertainment version of a Tony Soprano archetype. Both stories are set in New Jersey, but unlike Tony, the violence Randy inflicts is consensual. Still, in a story about an entertainment wrestler, who is later shown to be a deadbeat dad, a scary guy, a stroppy employee and a poor potential love interest, the writer really needs to get the audience on side before sending Randy upon his emotional journey (character arc).

CREATE SAVE THE CAT MOMENTS

Once you know what a save the cat moment is, they stand out like a sore thumb. This leads some writers to eschew them altogether. But this is a writer’s response, not a typical one.

Not one but THREE consecutive save the cat moments set Randy up as a sympathetic character:

  1. Randy the Ram signs for fans even though he is obviously suffering from pain after a fight.
  2. He is playful with local trailer park kids even though they wake him up too early the following morning.
  3. He brawns his favourite sex worker against some guys who are giving her grief. (Pam isn’t 100% glad to have missed out on $200, which puts some of the power back with her.)
ESTABLISH THE MAIN CHARACTER AS AN UNDERDOG

Randy is also established as an underdog character:

  1. He is huge in bulk, but we initially see him in a kindergarten classroom. This is never explained in the story, but I guess the wrestlers have booked a school for their event. This juxtaposition infantalises Randy and makes him appear harmless. It also makes the whole wrestling gig seem a little comical.
  2. While sitting on a very small chair, Randy’s manager gives him his pay, which is less than has been promised. Randy accepts it without a fight. Post-fight, he is too wasted to fight any more.
  3. We follow Randy home in his beat up truck and learn that his ‘home’ is a trailer park, and he sleeps in the very same truck.
  4. We are shown clearly how much pain he is in. We see him wince and limp and un-bandage himself. We see him mutilate himself as part of the props.
  5. Off stage, Randy wears glasses and a hearing aid. With these accoutrements, and the pained walk, he transforms from a formidable fighter into a vulnerable old man.
  6. The guy who runs the trailer park is after Randy for park fees and won’t let up even though Randy says he needs to spend his money on pain management.
  7. As we spend time with Randy over the following days we see why he has no money to pay his basic living costs. Regardless of how we might judge him for misusing his own pay check, he is using it to buy time with the woman he loves (Pam the sex worker). He tells her to ‘keep the change’. We have already seen he can’t afford to be so generous. He uses his pay check to buy drugs, but only drugs which will make him ‘bigger and stronger’ for his work (notably, more are offered but he reveals himself to have limits and his own understandable logic when he turns down cocaine and notoriously addictive painkillers). He uses his money to get foils in his hair and to rent a tanning bed. We therefore see Randy in a financial bind the job he is employed to do requires a lot of personal outlay. There is no financial return for this weekend gig. He is addicted to the in-group prestige, and is utilised as a fighting tool by his wrestling managers, who are his pimps.
  8. The boss at his weekday job treats Randy like rubbish, making a snide remark about him needing more hours to buy ‘tights’. This is femme phobic of course, but mostly demonstrates how little this boss understands about the real outlays required. Tights are the least of it. Randy swallows his pride and although he has the brawn to really take this guy down, he makes an attempt to laugh at the jokey insult. Importantly, the boss is up a ladder at the time, doing some stock taking. Randy is down below. Though the viewpoint places the boss in a clearly more powerful position, it is also true that Randy could wipe out that ladder, just like that. But he doesn’t. We side with characters who have the means to wield power but keep it in check despite trying circumstances. When they finally do break out, we understand how frustrated they are.

With Randy the Ram clearly established as an underdog character who ‘saves the cat’ multiple times, the writers pull out the big gun: they give Randy a heart attack. Vince Gilligan does exactly the same thing in the pilot of Breaking Bad (but it’s lung cancer). It’s not the first heart event Randy’s had that would be a bit too convenient and make it seem more like a contrived narrative and less like the reality show feel they’re going for. But this heart event is the worst one yet.

Now, with our sympathy firmly with Randy the Ram, the writer is free to show the audience how this character has contributed to his own situation. And we will forgive him his trespasses, as we most always do in real life when we have a fuller picture of someone.

It is definitely possible to go too far with that and turn the story into either inadvertent melodrama (specifically, a sob story) or a narrative too much to bear.

In places, it’s almost too excruciating to watch and not just for the chairs-over-the-head, staple-gun-in-the-chest horrors of the wrestling scenes; it’s the sheer, awful hopelessness of Randy’s life

The Guardian review of The Wrestler

THE CRITIQUE OF HYPER MASCULINITY AND LACK OF EMOTIONAL LABOUR

After he has a heart attack Randy makes an effort to make the personal connections he’s neglected thus far in life, while working in this hyper-masculine industry where personal connections with women come last.

So he embarks upon his plan to improve his personal relationships. First he asks his sex worker woman to go out with him, outside the club. She advises him to go to see his family. That’s what family is for.

So he goes to see his daughter. I imagine women might respond to this scene with Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood) differently from men, in the same way middle aged women responded completely differently to Helen Garner’s novel The Room, about a woman forced to care for her friend, who is dying of cancer. I feel a lot of empathy for the daughter, who sees immediately what the situation is, and she is right, of course. Randy does need someone, a woman, to look after him. And he has very little emotional labour of his own in the bank.

When rejected so harshly by his daughter, Randy decides he will pretend his heart attack didn’t happen. He goes back to work as a wrestler. He’ll just keep fighting until he doesn’t get back up again.  But watching the other old men behind the desk, the camera focuses in on their various injuries and he has his first genuine anagnorisis he really is too old for this. The job really is going to kill him.

This is when Randy’s biggest shortcoming his complete lack of real emotional intimacy begins to be truly tested.

He secures a new role at the department store, but this time working with customers at the deli. Working with customers is itself taxing for someone who isn’t used to doing emotional labour. The deli is not only a customer service role but a highly symbolic job where he is serving the public by selling (actual) meat. We see him cutting meat up as we have already seen him cut his own skin with the bandaged blade.

The parallel plot line is that Randy is trying desperately to hook up with a sex worker who is not interested in him, and who is also planning to move away.

In this story, women come out better off. Randy is perfectly capable of emotional astuteness, but his lack of maturity is revealed when Pam turns him down after he asks her a second time. Because the audience has been prepped to empathise with Randy, it’s easy to forget: Randy has been told no and he’s just not taking no for an answer. This is a huge, problematic character flaw. When a younger, good looking woman turns him down, he becomes aggressive. This is left to speak to Randy’s long history with women, and explains why he has ended alone. In stories with a set up like this, it is dangerous to forget this fact.

Conditioned by society to expect care and attention from women, Randy is unable to take no for an answer. He is also a victim of this specific misogyny. He goes on a drug-fuelled bender with the first woman who shows interest in him as a wrestler (though not in him). The bleach blonde woman in the bar has fallen for Randy the Ram, not for Randy the person. He wakes the next morning to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom plastered in posters of equally buff men. Men, as well as women, can be used sexually. On this particular night, he was little different from a sex worker. But unlike Pam, he isn’t making active choices about what he’s doing with his body.

And unlike Pam, he fails to show up for his child. This has devastating consequences.

Randy’s relationship with the two major women in his life (daughter Stephanie and sex worker Pam) are combative. The power hierarchy swings back and forth, emulating a fight in the ring, except Randy is out of control in real life. He can only cope with  pro wrestling, which is staged. He can’t cope with the emotional ‘wrestling’ of real life.

Stephanie initially agrees to rekindling something with her absent ‘fuck up’ father, but when he fails to show after his drug fuelled bender all is lost for them both.

I knew Randy the Ram would botch it with his daughter. I just KNEW IT. I knew it because I know wrestlers. The business ALWAYS comes first. You can NEVER switch it off.

Wrestle Zone

The scene where Randy and Stephanie argue is highly reminiscent of mother and daughter fighting in Thirteen, and I guess that’s partly how Evan Rachel Wood was chosen for this role. (Child yells at parent, parent is culpable for leading both to this point, they both end up slumped on the floor.) But unlike the more hopeful Thirteen, this parent-child relationship has no happy ending, subverting the expectation (or the hope) that The Wrestler is going to be a redemption arc. (This counts as ‘subversion’ because the redemption story has a long, strong history in America and we’ve been primed to expect it. Even the movie poster primes us to expect it, but this is a redemption opportunity for Mickey Rourke, not for Randy the Ram.)

Randy is the loser in his real life. And when Pam comes to Randy to apologise and explain her position he takes off in his van without waiting around to hear it. Her face lets us know that she is distraught.  But Randy is off to a safe, staged fight. He needs to leave this real life relationship while he has the upper hand. To him, at this moment, Pam is the loser. She does follow him to his fight, but can’t bear to watch him getting beat up.

APPEARANCE VS REALITY

Pro wrestling is a fake sport, right? Yes, but as an activity, it’s pretty real. […] It’s scripted that the villain sneaks up on the hero, who pretends not to see him, and pushes him over the ropes and out of the ring. Fake. But when the hero hits the floor, how fake is that? “Those guys learn how to fall,” people tell me. Want to sign up for the lessons?

Roger Ebert

Pretty much everything I love is all about the difference between appearance versus reality:

  • Looking like an average couple in 1980s America while serving as Russian spies
  • Living successfully as a guy called Don Draper, who was actually killed in the war
  • Living as a high school chemistry teacher while raking in the big bucks cooking meth in Albuquerque
  • Living in the snail under the leaf setting of New Jersey suburbia while working as the head of the local mafia
  • Living in Utah suburbia while practising a fundamental version of accepted LDS faith which has been outlawed.

You could argue that every single narrative is about the difference between appearance vs. reality, and the very point of story itself is to let us in on another reality which is normally hidden to us another person’s interiority their most private of selves. But as listed above, some stories are very much about this dichotomy, and The Wrestler is another one.

DOUBLE NAMES

One significant way writers create a duality in a character is to give them another name, whether that’s a nickname, a pseudonym, a work name, or in this case, a stage name and a hooker name. (Other examples: Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, Nadezhda and Mikhail; Don Draper, Dick Whitman; Walter White, Heisenberg; etc.)

Randy (“The Ram”) Robinson’s real name is Robin Ramzinski. The character backstory is probably that he ditched Robin because it’s a unisex name and therefore too feminine for such a hyper-masculine world. While ‘Ramzinski’ is too foreign to be memorable in an Anglo dominant culture, the Ram is perfect for its masculine aggression. Even outside his wrestling milieu, Robin hates his birth name. He has learned to feel uncomfortable with it. The industry has shaped who he really is. He has become the wrestler.

‘Pam’ is the real name of Randy’s sex worker love interest. Unlike Randy, Pam is still Pam when she’s not Cassidy at work. She feels Pam is her real name, and uses the distinction to keep her private life as a mother separate from her sex work. She will only let Randy use ‘Pam’ in certain circumstances, when he’s not with her as her client.

How these characters use their names says a lot about how they self-identify. Cassidy IS Pam, whereas Randy IS Randy. This small detail is part of the network of clues which lead us to the inevitable tragic ending; Randy can never escape because wrestling has utterly absorbed him.

DIEGETIC MUSIC

Apart from symbolic cheering and clapping at non-wrestling moments, The Wrestler makes use of a diegetic soundtrack, which gives it a documentary feel. Randy listens to 80s hair metal in his van. This music ends abruptly whenever he turns off the ignition, replaced next by silence. This abrupt switch between noisy music and silence underscores the stark distinction between two different worlds. (The 1980s soundtrack also takes us back to an earlier era, when Randy was in his prime contrast upon contrast.)

THE PRO WRESTLINGSEX WORK ANALOGUE

Whereas one of these industries has been heavily regulated (and criminalised) throughout history, the other has not. This is part of a benevolently (and not so benevolently) sexist attitude that women (and men) need to be protected from the vice of recreational paid sex. Sex work has its very own politics.

But in many ways, pro wrestling is the perfect masculine analogue for sex work. Both industries involve penetrating the envelope of the physical body in a way no other industry requires of its workers. Both are all consuming as jobs. Both require the worker to either maintain another self or to fully incorporate their entertainment selves into their mundane-world identities. There seems to be no in between, as there is with other jobs, where we might put on a uniform (or work clothes) and change a little when entering the work arena, but not entirely. Most of us keep our names, and our inner bodies, for ourselves.

Pam is more aware of these issues than is Randy. As mentioned above, she is therefore at a huge maturity advantage, and we can see her achieving the very good life she is working towards. During the lap dance scene she asks Randy if wrestling is ‘fake’. Randy won’t admit to ‘fake’. He shows Pam his big struggle scars, sustained doing a staged but very real job.

Though we see less of Pam, Pam’s story is also a complete arc. When Randy tells his daughter Stephanie he used to pretend she didn’t exist, he is mirroring Pam, who doesn’t tell her customers she has a son (because “it’s not exactly a turn on”). Pam has her own minor story arc. At one point the camera even lets us see the world through Pam’s point of view. While this story is not The Story of a woman, the woman romantic interest is far better drawn here than in similar sports films such as Million Dollar Baby (which is deceptive, since the title suggests that film is about the female character).

THE VIDEO GAME SCENE

In one scene of The Wrestler we see Randy playing a computer game with a neighbourhood kid. The kid is unimpressed but gentle. This is an old game played on an ancient console. He is humoring Randy, who is reliving his heyday. Back in the 1980s, Randy’s avatar starred in a computer game. Now, only Randy himself remembers this retro arcade game.

Apart from highlighting the superstar backstory of this down-and-out wrestler, the computer game scene serves three main purposes:

  • Randy is, in later life, keen to spend time with a child. Part of this is undoubtedly selfish he’s reliving his heyday as a superstar. But when we see him with his daughter, we understand he is also reliving his lost fatherhood. The emotion evoked here is massive regret. Once kids are grown, there’s no second chance at parenthood. I find the song Cat’s In The Cradle excruciating in this regard, and so is this scene, in the exact same way.
  • The computer game of wrestling is the ultimate fake world, existing behind a literal screen.
  • Randy wants to spend more time with the neighbour kid than vice versa, emphasising Randy’s loneliness and underscoring his underdog status.
THE DOUBLE AUDIENCE

The first story reveal establishes a distinction between the film’s audience and the diegetic audience. We see the wrestlers discuss how they are going to set up the fights. In case we ever wondered, they’re staging this entirely. When they get into the ring they have to pretend they want to kill each other. Back stage, their homosocial camaraderie is apparent. They admire each other a lot. To make light of this homo-erotically charged atmosphere, Randy jokes at one point, “Now let’s all take a shower together.” (Femme phobic environs are always homophobic and vice versa, though Randy himself proves liberal and astute when it comes to his daughter’s lesbian-ness.)

THE UNMASKING SCENE

Randy becomes Robin when he grovels after more hours, any role at the department store. He wants to know why he needs ‘Robin’ written on his deli counter name tag. “They must’ve got it off your W-40 or something. Just wear the fuckin thing, all right?” With this simple name tag, the mask of the tough guy wrestler has started to peel off. He’s even wearing a shower cap looking thing which has a feminine vibe to it even though it’s worn by people of any gender working in certain industries. The camera follows Randy close behind as if he’s being filmed entering the ring. We hear the audience cheering. Then he steps into the delicatessen.

Randy starts to get into his deli job, joking with the customers, turning himself into an entertainer. But he is used to a completely different milieu and some of his customers find him over the top. He throws the product as if it’s a football. That’s not what they’ve come for.

Outside the deli Randy is really put through his paces, dealing with his own relationship messes on top of petulant customers from work. Then comes the big emotional Battle scene, which interpolates between staged Battles inside the ring.

Someone at the deli counter recognises him from his wrestling days. The mask has now come off completely. Two mutually exclusive worlds collide. Randy fails to manage his emotions and cuts his hand on the meat slicing machine. This time the blood loss isn’t planned. He quits his deli job in a rage, breaking out into full wrestler mode. This was foreshadowed by the way he came in.

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE COAT

Coats and hats are used in stories as a kind of camouflage or as a new identity. In this story there’s a symbolic coat, a recognisable part of pro wrestling world.

Hoping to make up for many missed birthdays, Randy buys Stephanie not one but two jackets. The first is the shiny one, like worn by a wrestler when entering the ring. But the second is a real coat, that will genuinely keep her warm. The two coats symbolise the ‘shiny’ surface world of wrestling; the warm coat shows that he does have some depth and is thoughtful. Significantly, the filmmakers showed us Randy buying the shiny wrestling coat, but kept the second coat as a reveal. This is how they make this scene so affecting. It is so heartwarming and such a relief to see that Randy was able to understand, off-stage, that Stephanie would not like a wrestling jacket. She hates the wrestling-world side of her father. Wrestling stole her father from  her.

HIGHLY SYMBOLIC PLACES

Randy takes Stephanie to a highly symbolic place an abandoned theme park a place he remembers but she doesn’t remember much. Abandoned places make such great shooting locations because they mirror the emotional wrecks of main characters.

This film has highly symbolic shooting locations in general: I’ve already mentioned the kindergarten. Below I mention the womb symbolism of the ‘ring’.

The Wrestler Kindergarten class

The weather is also symbolic, with much of it taking place in winter. Yet there’s a lot of upper-body nudity, more suited to warmer climes. It’s significant that where Randy and Pam are naked they are most like their fake selves. Unlike the usual symbolic meaning of ‘naked’, these two are more authentic when wrapped in multiple layers.

THE TRAGEDY OF A FAKE ANAGNORISIS

When a character does not get what they want, we call it a tragedy. What does Randy want? Real, human connection. Too late in life, and only after a health scare, he has jumped in head first. He’s opened up to Pam and apologised to his estranged daughter. He really has tried to be his real self.

And he does earn a genuine Anagnorisis. We are shown evidence of this anagnorisis back stage with Pam, who has chased him down, hoping to start something. He rejects Pam and includes her in ‘the outside world’ when he says, “no one out there gives a shit about me”.

But then Randy gets into the ring. There he makes a mock-heartfelt comeback speech.

American filmmakers love big speeches with big audiences. Normally this big speech is used to show the (real) audience (as well as the diegetic audience) that the character has had a anagnorisis, but Randy tells his setting audience that they are ‘all his family’, contradicting the self-awareness he displayed with Pam. This ‘big speech’ scene therefore subverts the storyteller’s trope of teaching the audience a thematic lesson via a self-revelatory speech.

In other words, Randy has had a anagnorisis but he replaces it immediately with a false one, and suppression of his real human needs will lead to his downfall. Continuing like this, he will remain unable to lead a fulfilling life. Then he will die.

DOES THE ENDING WORK FOR YOU?

The Wrestler has one of those endings that divides viewers. This is always the case when the storyteller leaves the audience to extrapolate the new situation part of the story for ourselves. Some viewers just don’t seem to be be able to do that, even after being given all necessary information. Others absolutely love it when we are given enough information to extrapolate.

We don’t see what happens to Randy when he returns to real life, because for Randy there is no ‘real life’. Any number of filmmakers would have chosen to leave us with a scene showing Randy back in his van, pumping himself with more drugs, or similar variations on that. But it’s hugely fitting that Randy ends with a wrestling scene. That’s his home (and cage) forever.

THE SLAVERY-FREEDOM ARC

In the vast majority of stories, characters begin in a state of entrapment then find their own version of freedom. (Note that main characters are ‘trapped’ by their own shortcomings rather than literally, and that is definitely the case for Randy. No one’s put handcuffs on the guy.)

The Wrestler fits in the type of story that moves from entrapment to temporary freedom to greater entrapment to death. If you want to write ‘heartbreaking’, use this arc. I find this arc even more tragic than the arc of a tragedy like Hamlet, because we had a glimpse of how Randy’s life might have looked had he made different choices. He was so close to achieving a lasting relationship with Stephanie and with Pam. If only he hadn’t blown it. If only. This arc invokes the strong emotion of regret.

The last we see in The Wrestler, Pam turns to leave, clearly disappointed. We know from her face that their budding relationship is over; we have already been shown that she has plans to move away. We know that’s what she’ll do. We have also been shown that, in many ways, these two are ‘soul mates’ they might really understand each other if only they both opened up.

Next we see a low-angle shot of Randy as he climbs the ropes of the ring then throws himself belly first onto the platform.

The film fades to black. One interpretation is that the fall kills Randy on the spot, but that would be too tidy for a film so cinéma vérité.

I extrapolate that this is how Randy does exit life, but on another day. With a heart weakened from drug use and fighting, he will go out with a bang. This ending is his spiritual death. His literal death will probably be another iteration of this exact scenario, with Randy safely ensconced (enslaved) inside the ring as he once was in the womb, the circle (‘ring’) of life complete, surrounded by his fake ‘family’.

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