Movie Study: Serena (2014)

Serena is an example of a film in which the production values and acting talent far exceed the final product. Serena’s obvious symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue make for a film that’s narratively sub-par, but for students of storytelling  it’s an interesting case study.

serena-poster

  • The name ‘Serena’ is meaningful — although the character comports herself serenely in public and in front of her own husband (at least until the novelty of the relationship has worn off) she has a dark underside which we just know is going to come out sooner or later. We’ve heard about her from the gossipy woman at the hunting meet.
  • Who is the (tragic) hero of this story? The question is always: Who changes the most over the course of the story? In which case, the answer is both George and Serena. Their relationship is the main character. George becomes Serena and vice versa, symbolised very obviously during the blood transfusion scene in which George is giving his blood to Serena after her haemorrhage. (Hollywood politics are such — and the gender pay gap is such — that Jennifer Lawrence famously got second billing in this film. Bradley Cooper has since come out and said he will share his contract details with female costars in future to help with them bargain better with movie bosses who don’t believe in equality.)
  • In 1920s America the character of Serena is a very unusual woman. She expects her husband’s right-hand man to shake her hand (something even modern men don’t even know whether to do or not with women). She doesn’t seem like an enlightened feminist of the first wave, though, either. She pits herself in direct opposition to the Hillary Swank type woman (Rachel) who, at the story’s beginning, George has already gotten pregnant.
  • Serena and Rachel are Betty and Veronica types. Casting usually ends up with contrasting hair colours for women. Men can all have the exact same hair colour and skin tone (white) and we’re expected to look at their personalities, but female actors playing in opposition to each other are expected to change the colour of their hair. We do, however, have a red-headed man in this who plays a part in George and Serena’s downfall by taking the incriminating ledger books from the safe.
  • Serena knows from her father’s logging business in Colorado that eagles are useful. They kill snakes, which protects the men. Serena makes a name for herself by becoming the eagle lady, importing a trained eagle (trained by a woman, she specifies) to carry out this exact job. What is the symbolism of the eagle? Could it be that the writer wants us to think of Serena as a harpy — a half eagle, half woman chimera, who swoops in seemingly ‘on the wind’ (though actually on a train). Harpies steal food from their victims while they are eating and carry evildoers (especially those who have killed their family) to the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies). Their name means “snatchers”.
  • We know early on that fire is symbolic. There is much fiddling around with cigarettes and lighters and sitting in front of fires, gazing into them. So it’s no surprise really when it is revealed that Serena bears a scar — an outward manifestation of her psychic wound — on her back. George washes her lovingly in the bath. She tells him, and us of course, the event which wounded her — as a child her house burned down. As she ran away she heard the screaming of all her younger siblings, all of whom burned to death in the fire.
  • Anyone who has read We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson may wonder if it was Serena who set the original fire in the first place. Apparently it is strongly implied in the Serena novel that she set the fire in order to end up sole heir. I suspect this story owes quite a bit to Jackson.
  • The characters are all archetypes rather than rounded. If Serena is a mysterious beautiful woman who flies into town — a modern harpy with an obvious wound which has somehow made her sociopathic. George is a ruthless business man who — I think — we’re still supposed to side with, because he tells us at the town hall that he cares for the jobs of his men. Rachel is a poor country girl whose only way out of abject poverty is to hang around George until he feels guilty enough to hand her money. Buchanan is possibly a closeted and frustrated gay man who is betrayed by his love interest’s getting married. The characters get more archetypal as we move further out from George. A character straight out of a horror film is of course Galloway, whose mother told him as a child that a woman would save his life. When Serena sort of saves him after his hand gets axed he is convinced not only that it’s her, but actually knocks on her front door to tell her husband that he is indebted to her and is in her service forever. It just so happens that he’s been in prison for murder. “He had it coming.”
  • “He had it coming” is exactly the sort of uninspiring snippets of dialogue found throughout the film. “I have your child inside me,” Serena says to George, upping the stakes when their ‘future’ is at risk. Dialogue exists almost solely to tell the audience what should already be clear: “It’s so obvious now. My friend was never my friend,” says George after Serena and all of the entire audience has already worked that out. After describing the lethal fire of her childhood Serena finishes up with, “After that day I swore that I would never love anyone ever again. I can’t lose you.” Likewise, when Rachel Hermann asks for her job back we are told “If she don’t get a job her and that boy will starve.” With the most rudimentary of historical contexts we already know what a dire predicament Rachel is in, with no social welfare and no husband to support her.
  • At the end there is a chase scene, as the horror-figure of Galloway is determined to carry out the murder of Rachel and Jacob on Serena’s behalf. Miraculously, George finds Rachel and Jacob hiding at the exact same time Galloway does. He is able to fight him to the death right then and there in the climactic battle scene. Another coincidence of timing happens when George is killed by the panther, who might as well be fighting on a stage — all of the men out looking for him arrive just at that exact moment. These coincidences lend a very Old West air to the story. In Westerns symbolism is everything and we don’t question it.
  • The photo album allows the audience to see into George’s head. We can see him extend allegiance from Serena to Rachel. Did we really need such obvious visuals? The photo album I can stomach. When George actually places the loose photograph of his son on top of his own childhood photo, that’s when I groaned.
serena-imdb
copy entered into IMDb
  • Advertising copy for this film usually says something like George’s trouble began when he married Serena. I would encourage people not to take this at face value. It’s often the case that advertising material for a film is more misogynistic than the story itself, which has the benefit of depth and layers. It is certainly not the case that Serena was the cause of George’s problems. He had already abandoned a woman he impregnated in favour of a more sophisticated one with the potential to add expertise to his precarious fortune. He killed his right-hand man without any help from Serena. This is in fact the story of two disturbed individuals whose union made each of them worse.
  • This is not necessarily easy for women to watch, even though it has been dismissed as a mere ‘chick flick’ by amateur reviewers on IMDb. The women do not talk to each other — in fact one of them is decidedly laconic, in a way that George finds strangely appealing. Both women are motived singularly by their relationship to a man and even the woman at the beginning is a gossipy stereotype who, in Pride and Prejudice fashion, ends up throwing Serena and George together while meaning to do the exact opposite. Serena absolutely falls apart when she discovers she cannot procreate, despite being invested in and motivated by the logging business. A more nuanced story might see her eventually throw her energies into that as a way of moving forward. That’s not what this is, of course. This was always meant to be a tragedy and I have no criticism for that. Instead I’m sick of the same old female tropes, and dismiss it therefore as a film for and about women.

Beauty And The Beast by Carter and Schroeder

Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.

Beauty and the Beast front cover Beauty and the Beast back cover

 

See: What Is Mythic Structure?

Beauty and the Beast is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. It’s called The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter includes Beauty and the Beast revisioning

In this version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:

  • the palace
  • nasty sisters
  • the return home

The main differences:

  • In the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
  • Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.

The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author

  1. Wrote the tale for adults, not children
  2. Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.

Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”

WEAKNESS/NEED

With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.

It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.

DESIRE

Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.

OPPONENT

Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.

Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.

beauty sewing with dog
Notice how the dog — its eyes, its colouring and its open mouth — look very much like the Beast when we meet him in the night garden. If this dog can love Beauty, so can the similar-looking Beast, apparently. Note also the bird, depicted in the same pink and greys as Beauty — who chooses not to fly away even though the cage is open.

The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally.

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras -- most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

table chimera

PLAN

When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.

It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.

The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.

The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty's ascent to Heaven. That's where she thinks she's going, after all.
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.

BATTLE

The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?

It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.

SELF-REVELATION

As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.

Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Self-revelation is delivered via dream.
Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Self-revelation is delivered via dream.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.

 

See Also

Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […] 

A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast

Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation

The Beauty and the Beast. Illustrator – Margaret Evans Price

Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this right

Studio Glibly

Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8xL7w1POZ0

The Rats In The Walls by H.P. Lovecraft

The Rats In The Walls Lovecraft

If you’re a fan of Renovation Rescue or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and think you’ve seen some good horror stories, you might consider turning brief attention to the story of H.P. Lovecraft, and I don’t actually mean his tragic life story in which he only achieved fame after an early, lonely death; I’m talking about the one in which a guy decides to restore his ancestral home after the death of his only son only to find he is hated by the locals… For creepy reasons which are none of his own fault. Then things get far, far worse.

Kingsley Amis said that this story achieves ‘a memorable nastiness’. Other short stories that have had this same effect on me: Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

A lot has already been said about The Rats In The Walls, not least in the Wikipedia entry.

The Rats In The Walls is a great example of a story which has been woven out of an Urban Legend: The Piltdown ManContinue reading “The Rats In The Walls by H.P. Lovecraft”

Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of  myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.

崖の上のポニョ Ponyo Film Poster
Gake no ue no Ponyo. A Japanese promotional poster. In some Japanese films the English title is extended (Totoro becomes ‘My Neighbour Totoro’) but in this case, ‘Ponyo On Top Of The Cliff’ has rather a clunky sound to it, and this time is shortened to just ‘Ponyo’.

 

I love the kanji for cliff because it actually looks like what it is.

がけ

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman’ and writes:

Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.

STORYWORLD

Food

Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.

  • The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
  • The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
  • Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
  • The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
  • Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)

Continue reading “Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure”