August 16, 2010

In Defense of Chris Nolan

Look, I'm a proud feminist. So when I watch a movie I tend to consider the role of women in that movie. Are they just bitchy girlfriends? Are they tacked on love interests to garner a female audience? Are they "fridged"?

Recently Chris Nolan's come under fire for the fate of his films'female characters. And I got to say, his critics are talking out of context.

The first I read was on Feministing, where the blogger asserts that Moll, dead wife of the protagonist Cobb, is a typical "hysterical wife" and criticizes Nolan for it. Well, major SPOILERS (for most of Nolan's films and Braveheart) ahead.

The biggest problem with this statement is that Moll isn't a character – she's a figment of his imagination. She's his guilt and anger over his wife's death twisted into his subconscious antagonist. So yeah – she's hysterical – but she's not real, as Cobb himself states in the film's conclusion.

Then Jezebel criticized most of his career in another out of context scenario. They looked at the female characters in Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige and Inception, then tallied who was an antagonist and who was dead. Yep lots of these ladies suffer and die – but you know what? Most of the male characters do too. Nolan makes dark dramas where nearly everyone pays a high price – often death. And to take the women out of the context of these films is to skew the perspective. It's cheating to be provocative. 'Oh everyone is rushing to see Inception? Let's twist it to be controversial so I can draw attention to my blog!'

This especially bums me out because I like Feministing. They are better than this ploy – though admittedly new to film criticism.

Anyway, back to Jezebel. If you don't know about fridgeing, here's the definition they provide:

"fridge, v. to kill off a female character solely for the purpose of giving the story's main male hero a reason to angst. Coined by Gail Simone in response to a storyline in The Green Lantern in which the hero's girlfriend is killed and literally stuffed in his refrigerator. In 1999, Simone started a website, Women in Refrigerators, that lists all of the comic book women who have been fridged."

I'm totally on board that it is incredibly frustrating as a female audience member to see women in the plot of a story (film, comic or otherwise) only so they can die and inspire the man to rise above as a dark avenger. Like in Braveheart, which a demented teacher showed my freshman class to teach us about love. Call me nutty, but when I think romance I don't think of getting raped and murdered and having my death avenged by my husband mooning my murderers and starting a war.

Anyhow, I'm on board with the objection to fridging females. However, I don't think Nolan's as guilty as they make him seem.

In Memento, Carrie-Ann Moss (Trinity from the Matrix films) plays Natalie, a bartender whose beau is missing when the memory-challenged Leonard ambles into her bar in her man's clothes. Natalie manipulates the protagonist to her own goals, and lives though Jezebel claims she's an evil femme fatale. Problem is  - all the people in the movie manipulate Leonard to their own ends. Teddy uses him as a hit man, Natalie uses him to get Dodd off her back, and even the (male) hotel manager uses him by renting him a room he doesn't remember to make a few extra bucks. Manipulation is not a female trait in this noir – it's a survival skill in the underbelly. Thereby, faulting Natalie alone is unfair.

Jezebel goes on to site Sammy Jankis' wife and Leonard's own wife - both who die at the hands of their husbands. Well, first off – it's inaccurate to count them as separate characters, because at the film's end we learn that Leonard's wife was the one who died by an insulin OD – we're told Jankis never had a wife. Admittedly, she is never a fully developed character – yep, we never learn her name – but like Inception's Moll, she's not a person, she's a fractured memory. She's Mrs. Jankis, she's the perfect wife, she's a rape victim, she's the woman he couldn't save and now can't remember. She's a ghost. Writing her off as a dead wife is a disservice to the film and the complexity of what is essentially the protagonist's motivation.

Then the post notes Memento fails the Bechdel Test, which they also define:

"The Bechdel Test: a litmus test developed by writer Alison Bechdel in 1985 to gauge the agency and autonomy of a story's characters. The test has three parts: 1) Are there two female characters who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than a man?"

But the whole film has thirteen characters, most of whom only speak to Leonard. It's his story. To me, this film's a good argument for the limitations of the Bechdel Test, which while well-intentioned is incredibly short sighted. (What is a film only has five characters? Why can't women be autonomous when discussing men? Why is a woman autonomous only if she speaks to another female?)

Jezebel's goes on to criticize Insomnia claiming its female lead is smart but an antagonist. I'd argue she's a foil to the old guard Pacino character, and the fact that she's a woman is a positive thing. As Jezebel points out she's "the only one sharp enough to catch the mistakes that Dormer made in his cover-up. Despite getting no backup from the rest of the local cops, who call her 'Nancy Drew,' she solves the mystery on her own and is the only one left standing as the credits roll. Technically she's an antagonist for the main character, but she's a principled one with plenty of agency." They seem to lessen her appeal as a strong female character because she causes troubles for the anti-hero male lead. I don't understand the logic there, personally. They also write off a character as a "whore." Very progressive.

Now, as far as the Batman movies, Jezebel likes the portrayal of Rachel Dawes as a strong female (Bechdel test be damned!) but faults Nolan for killing her in the second movie. I get it – it smells of fridging because it tortures Bruce Wayne and is large part of why Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face. However, Rachel is more than a tool of a man's torment – she was also a big part of why each man esteemed to be great men. Both aimed for her approval because she was so noble. Plus, despite being a clear love interest for the protagonist, she's not one obsessed by love, but rather driven to pursue justice in her city. No points for that?

Jezebel then sites roles that were practically under fives: Detective Ramirez – who betrays Jim Gordon (though not the only one – there was a male cop too!) And Jim
Gordan's wife – who they call a Madonna as she is only presented as wife and mother, and his daughter who is credited as Gordon's Daughter. I have my own theory about the daughter (fingers crossed for Bat Girl in the next flick!) but ultimately these are small roles that don't require definition. The movie's too long as it is.

Then there's The Prestige. You know what, I agree with Jezebel on this one. It's a dumb movie and the women only exist to flit about in revealing clothes and/or be killed. But most importantly – it's a badly written story. Fuckin' twins. Seriously?

And back to Inception. Like Feministing, Jezebel points out Moll's hysteria, and say some of the time she's not real, sometimes it's flashbacks. But the film's established that memories are unreliable in dreams, so the remembered Moll isn't her either. She's a shattered reflection of the women Cobb loved. All that remains are the fond memories to torture him and the projection of his guilt who wants him to suffer – because he feels he deserves it. Which, come on – he does.

Then there's Ariadne, who Jezebel likes. She's smart, and set up as an even better architect than Cobb ever was. (To me she's a lot like the lady detective in Insomnia to that degree). Jezebel says:

"She's the ultimate example of woman-as-conscience, persistently pushing Cobb to face his demons. Ultimately she's the one who completes the job they were hired to do, by shooting shade-Mal and literally drop-kicking Fischer out of Limbo. As the newest teammember, she's a stand-in for the audience, asking all the questions we're wondering; though Cobb is the main character, we're meant to identify with level-headed Ariadne. However, she is still a prop to Cobb's emotional and physical journey. We do see her 'die' at one point, stabbed by Mal no less. On the scale of Christopher Nolan movies, she's pretty damn good, but he's still got a long way to go."

Cobb may push the plot but Ariadne gives the film heart. She's the film's hero – though not its protagonist. She saves the damn day for most of the crew! And…it's not enough.

Yeah, Jezebel's stats are shocking. And yes – I am totally for more female characters in films. But I don't think Nolan's the one to attack. His film's actually have interesting female characters who push the plot forward while being relatable, and they are well-structured films that are financially successful. To me, this is The Daily Show argument all over again. And it makes the lot of us who are feminists and film fans look bad.

Jezebel concludes with this:

"Again, let me be clear that I am a fan of Nolan. I belive {spelling error hers} he's a visionary. But speaking as a woman who watches his movies, I find myself longing to see someone like me onscreen, who doesn't die horribly. I want to believe that he is better than this. I want to believe that he just hasn't been challenged on it yet.

 / Consider this your gauntlet, Mr. Nolan."

I too like Nolan. But, I accept that his films are dark and are often about death. And not just lady death. Men in Memento manipulate – as do women. Men in Insomnia are majorly flawed, but a female detective figures out the mystery and lives to tell the tale – what she decides to tell is in her power. The Batman films present a strong female character, who unlike her predecessor (I'm looking at you Vicki Vale), don't just scream and faint, but pursues justice and fights crime. The Prestige is dumb. But Inception in a deeply interesting story he spent ten years on. I think we as viewers are just beginning to scratch the surface. So, writing it off as another fridging story doesn't just hurt Nolan's rep or the film's box office, it hurts filmmaking.

I'm asking we look at context before we criticize. And put your money where your mouth is. Support films with strong females – like Kick-Ass, Salt or The Kids Are Alright. Because Hollywood doesn't give a shit about blogs; they do care about the bottom line. 

How's that for a gauntlet, ladies?

~Movie Nerd Girl

Note: Jezebel reposted from Gadzooks. I'm referencing Jezebel b/c they tend to court controversy over film criticism.