Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Films of Karyn Kusama: Aeon Flux



                The second film in my Analysis of The Films of Karyn Kusama is the dystopian dialectical sci fi flop Aeon Flux.  Adapted from the series of the same name, this film version was a chance for Kusama to prove her grit by successfully helming a big budget studio film of a beloved property, while showing that such adaptations can be developed with an arthouse flair, years before the concept was a known commodity. Unfortunately, the film was not created nor received in the spirit of the original film pitch, nor its source material. This paper seeks to understand the historical context in which these decisions were made, while looking at the sociological concepts of the film, and the consequences of the film’s fallout, which impacted Kusama longer than her fellow male directors.

 


PLOT

In 2415, a soldier in a rebel faction against its Orwellian government attempts to assassinate their dictator. Finding that she is uncharacteristically unwilling and unable to complete the mission, Aeon Flux (Theron), searches for answers and uncovers the truth about life and death; a secret that threatens to shake the last human city of Bregna down to its core.  Alienated from both the Government and the rebels, Aeon Flux must make unlikely allies in hopes for survival for herself and the rest of humanity.

 


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

            Source Material

            The original Aeon Flux was a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adult animation created and directed by Peter Chung. The plot centered around the warring factions of the last two human cities: Monica and Bregna. Where Bregna was a totalitarian nightmare of rigid order, Monica was based on anarchistic hedonism. The series follows Aeon through various missions to ultimately kill the sovereign leader, Trevor Goodchild. Not only were Aeon and Trevor constructed as the typical protagonists and antagonists, but also their opposite, the exception to their identity and skill set. Aeon, a master assassin, and warrior can do anything, except kill Treavor. Treavor, a Brilliant Scientist, and military tactician, can have anything he wants, except the thing he wants the most, which is Aeon.  Each encounter between them played on this tension leading to sex, betrayal, and violence, often all three at the same time. Throughout the shorts and the series, the audience vacillates their allegiances from Aeon to Treavor and back again; highlighting that they are both despicable people in pursuit of their own goal(s).  

             The series was originally presented as a combination of shorts and a limited series broadcasted by MTV as apart of their “Liquid Television” line up from 1991-1995.  This series, especially the original shorts, captivated the attention of viewers because of the animation’s fluid and BDSM influenced sexuality and violence.  Because Chung never desired an adaptation of his work, most of the shorts included the death of Aeon, which confused the audience as to how the stories were being told, for even though Aeon seemed to die, the story still progressed, sometimes continuing with Aeon, and sometimes with other soldiers. It was eventually revealed/retconned that both cities had invented and implemented cloning technology and used it against their enemy.

Marketed and chiefly consumed by Generation X, (1964-1980) Aeon Flux, the series, was one of the few at the time that had a broader perspective on war and violence that mirrored the anti-war, cold war despair felt by the latchkey kids of pro capitalist Boomers. In the first short, as Aeon Flux runs through a factory indiscriminately murdering all of the soldiers in her path, the story leaves her and makes the audience sit in the carnage that she created. In the aftermath, gravely wounded soldiers find each other and spend their last few moments together before dying of their injuries. The short continues following the crew tasked with cleaning up the massacre and return everything to Bregna’s pristine totalitarian order.  This is one of the first US animated series with a clear anti-authoritarian message, forcing the audience to sit in the inevitable collateral damage of war of which Gen X were so emboldened to resist. It was a perfect counter cultural moment for the quintessential dissonant generation.




Production.

First announced in 2003, the film was the brainchild of Shelly Lansing at Paramount Pictures. She brought on Karyn Kusama just after her brilliant debut in Girlfight. In the beginning, Kusama’s indie female focused sensibilities seem to be in lock step with the animated characterization of Aeon, and the characterization and tone Lansing was going for… and she was hoping to reteam Kusama with Michelle Rodriguez in the titular role. The role eventually went to Charlize Theron coming off of her Oscar win for Monster, adding even more indie drama credibility. Yet, regardless of executive enthusiasm, and the acquisition of award-winning director and star, the film became fraught with problems that plagued the film from all aspects of production.

The first hiccup came when Kusama began to scout locations for the bulk of the shoot.  Kusama’s initial choice of location was Brasilia, Brazil; believing it to fit the aesthetic of Bregna. This was summarily rejected by the studio citing both the expense and the unsubstantiated belief that the city could not sustain the budget and scope of the production. Given that this was Kusama’s second film, and first studio picture, she did not have the clout to make a final decision on the matter. Like many indie directors on their sophomore outing, they have to prove themselves to be “bankable” to a studio. Therefore, many directors in this position are ostensibly directors-for-hire because of how little impact and input they have on the film. This became apparent the deeper Aeon Flux went into production.

The next hiccup came during principal photography. After reading a copy of the script, Peter Chung, publicly denounced the adaptation, saying that “[He] did not see Aeon in this film.” To his point, the writers of Aeon Flux, Phill Hay and Matt Manfredi, were the same writers behind award winning hits like RIPD (the Ryan Reynolds Jeff Bridges travesty about a supernatural police force) and Ride Along (the buddy movie starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart). Yet, chagriningly, this is also the writing team for most of Kusama’s body of work (except Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body). Kusama met Hay during production and were married a year later. To square this cognitive dissonance, one must take into consideration their entire collaborative body of work. In that context, aside from this film, which Kusama had little control over, by far the best stuff that Hay and Manfredi have written, has been with Kusama.  This could be due to the chemistry and unlikely symmetry between Kusama and Hay, that they just understand each other so completely that it elevates their work. Or, more likely, it was less an equally collaborative affair, and more Kusama’s influence on their future writing partnership.

The third and final hiccup, and one that signaled the film’s asphyxiation, came during postproduction. During the editing of the film, producer Shelly Lansing, the biggest champion of Kusama’s vision for the film, left the company and was replaced by Donald Doline. After the first round of edits, Donald Doline left and was replaced by Brad Gray and Gayle Brenneman. Thus, because production companies are motivated by profits, each new producer took the film away from Kusama and heavily edited it. Of Kusama’s 105-minute R-Rated cut, Gray and Breneman eventually created a 71-minute PG-13 film to try and widen the market for the film’s release. After the producer cut got horribly reviewed at a preview screening, they brought Kusama back to re-cut the film, but exclusively NOT to her original vision. It was because of this experience that Kusama now demands final cut on all her projects, even if it means a pay cut.

Unbeknownst to Kusama at the time, the unraveling of Aeon Flux was a symptom of Corporate Capitalism. In 2002-2005, the production time of the film, Viacom, the parent company of Paramount, was going through massive restructuring; splitting, and merging various parts of themselves to avoid repeating anti-trust litigation they once faced in 1948. Because of this, executives were moved around in a shell game of corporate responsibilities and profit consolidation.  Yet, in this profit driven system, many of these new executives, to show their value and worth to the company, came up with new ideas and edits for the films under their purview, while ignoring what their predecessors did; regardless of if the ideas were good or not. This reinforces the importance of context in pop culture criticism, lest we forget that the film is a product of the conditions under which it was made. Thus, it should be no surprise that a film like Aeon Flux was created at a time of greed and corporate malfeasance.   


 


SOCIAL ANALYSIS       

            Kusama being a “hired gun” on Aeon Flux resulted in a lot of the socially relevant and sociological themes that will be consistent across her later work, to be sparse here and muddled in their presentation.  A lot of the interesting ideas that this film touches on, are not well conceived or given much weight, even though they are the central foundation for the setting of the film. Thus, this film attempts to touch on fascism, totalitarianism, bodies and their biopower without conscientiously engaging with them.

 

            Totalitarian Dystopia

            Aeon Flux, like a lot of sci-fi films take the imagery and the rhetoric of Orwell’s 1984 as a shorthand for despotic futurism. Yet, these films often only use that imagery as window dressing rather than conducting a thorough interrogation. In this context, Orwell’s 1984 is dime store Max Weber with a sprinkling of C. Wright Mills.

According to Kelner (1984)[1]  The differences between Orwell and Weber are subtle, but present:

Unlike Max Weber, Orwell does not conceive of bureaucracy as containing its own dynamics, its own rationality, or its own contradictions. Consequently, especially in 1984, Orwell reinforces the predominantly conservative-individualist vision that the state and bureaucracy per se are repressive and serve to concentrate power in a bureaucratic caste. For Orwell, power and the will to power are depicted as the prime goal of a bureaucratic society and the primary motivation for party bureaucrats. Power is not a means but is an end in itself, the end or telos of at least the political elite's individual and societal behavior. Revolution, in this picture, is primarily a project of seizing power and establishing a new class of party bureaucrats whose primary goal is maintaining their own power.  For Max Weber, by contrast, bureaucracy contained a certain amount of logic and rationality and was part of a process of rationalization and modernization which produced at least some social benefits and progress (i.e. rational calculation, predictability, law, governance by rules rather than force, etc.)

Whereas Orwell narratively constructs a Bureaucracy as a conscious enemy of the people, and a focal point for revolution away from it, Weber understands that a lot of social control is the most effective through noninvasive coercion, rather than direct oppression. Weber (2019) knew that direct oppression would increase the likelihood of resistance. To curb resistance, the bureaucracy traps individuals into an endless cycle of routines and standardized behavior, the Weberian “Iron Cage”, to make the people more pliable (Weber 2019).  For Orwell, the bureaucracy is a mustache twirling villain with morose machinations. Instead, Weber (2019) realizes that the true terror of a bureaucratic composition is in its banality, and apathy towards its prisoners. Because it is not about the people trapped, it is about the continuation of the system.

            The crux of the difference between an Orwellian narrative and a Weberian Perspective is that between an individualist and collectivist perspective. Orwell assumes that individual people desiring power are the driving force of the domination and oppression of the system. Weber, on the other hand, understands that systems, once developed and implemented, do not emphasize individuals beyond just a resource to keep the system operating.  The domination and oppression in the Weberian system is an afterthought of the mechanisms of control implemented upon individuals, to make society operate with calculably efficient rationality (Weber 2019). Upon closer examination, the common system that Orwell describes seems to fit more with C. Wright Mills idea of The Power Elite; a predatory system that keeps power in the hands of a few, while actively oppressing others. Yet, because Mills (1956) is a student of Weber, he does not place too much value in the importance of the individuals in power because they can be cycled out. The position within the institution of power is more important than who holds the seat.         

Bodies, Reproduction and Bio Power

The film’s revelation that the consciousness of the citizens in Bregna are recycled into different bodies as they age and die, points to the execution of Foucauldian Biopower over the populace. Biopower is the ability for individuals, organizations, or systems to have control over how a person experiences and defines their body (Foucault 1977). In a very direct sense, this can be expressed through controlling when people eat, sleep, use the restroom etc. This usually takes place in Total Institutions.

According to Goffman (1961):

A Total Institution is a particular type of social institution within the social order. This is a hybrid between a residential community and formal organization

Components[2]:

1)      All aspects of social life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority

2)      Each phase of the member’s daily activity is in the immediate company of a large batch of others

3)      All activities are tightly scheduled

4)      All forced activities are brought together in a single rational plan to fulfill the aims of the institution.

5)      Person is often excluded from knowledge and decision regarding their fate.

 

Total institution’s control allows them to be easily harnessed by would-be or established dictators. This is accounted for in the film when Trevor Goodchild, the scientist that created the cure for the genocidal virus, became the ruler for over 400 years. In that time, the biopower he administered was a moratorium on natural pregnancy with an over reliance on cloning. This overreliance on cloning led to the fraying of recycled psyches resulting in developing madness and eventual death. However, Goodchild’s brother (an original character for the film to which all of Trevor’s “bad” qualities from the series could be grafted), believing that the totalitarian system is perfect, ultimately sabotages the reemergence of natural births through the murder of expectant mothers.

            The film’s antagonist exercising of biopower, to maintain the population, is of the very real social problem of the rollback of reproductive rights for women in the US. Outside of the directness the act of murder represents in the film, the general denial of natural births can be interestingly paralleled with the birth enforcement enacted in ½ of US states[3] after the overturning of Roe. in June of 2022. Just as the people of Bregna were forced to relive their lives and have their consciousness recycled through cloning (while openly eliminating natural births), so too are US women in ½ the states in the country forced to carry a child to term: regardless of the effect on the health of the mother, even rape survivors as young as 10,  nor the quality of life for the child after birth.  This parallel is just one of many made between current US politics and various examples of misogynistically despotic pop culture[4]in recent years; all of which should be met with alarm. Unfortunately, rather than get outraged at such an apt comparison, the result of this widely consumed and eerily prophetic form of entertainment is one of normalized acceptance rather than indignation. And, so long as our real politics do not exclusively copy the imagery of pop culture, they will be used as an unfair comparison; minimizing the impact of these decisions and shrouding the failure of allowing Supreme Court Justices to legislate from the bench to circumvent the democratic process. We will say “Well, at least its not exactly like Handmaid’s Tale.” Or more likely: “Those women Protesting in Handmaid’s outfits are embellishing/ being overly dramatic.  The US constant consumption of content has not only eroded our imaginations, but for comparisons to be considered apt in our culture, they must also be literal. Otherwise, the analogy is left open for criticism, especially a dismissal as hyperbole.

 

 

Hollywood double standards…no surprise.

            After the release and subsequent implosion of Aeon Flux, Karyn Kusama languished in “director jail” for years. This is a state of limbo filmmakers get put into after a notable or typically horrendous film is poorly received by both audiences and critics. Incarcerated directors are given few offers to direct projects, and any personal or independent projects they have will not gain traction.  Unfortunately, but to no one’s surprise, female directors often are given longer sentences than male directors. Since the patriarchy tends to see women in occupations to be niche, and therefore both being too specific and too general at the same time, the industry is unwilling to “take a chance” on another “female director.” Meanwhile, if male directors get sent to “jail” they often do not stay long, constantly giving many of them another shot. However, there has been an increasing trend of male directors being allowed  to fail upwards. In these situations, male directors don’t go to jail, they’re given the industry equivalent of diplomatic immunity. No matter what these director’s make, and regardless of how well their film is received they are given bigger budgets, more control, and greater desired IP.

This double standard exists because of the patriarchy valuing men and their perspective over any other. Therefore, men are given ample opportunities to express themselves, or if they make a mistake, correct their behavior by the simple “virtue” of being men. We see this in every industry from business executives, teachers, authors etc. In film, men are given near unlimited chances to succeed, and when their projects or personal proclivities fall short, meaning they turn out to be rapists, abusers and assaulters, there is a  codified redemption model  that they can follow to make their comeback. Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr. Aziz Ansari and Louis C. K. have all used it. Male directors are specifically lauded and exalted usually because at least one of their films are so revered that the director is later deified. Conversely, the reality for female directors is the opposite. If female directors make a well received well reviewed film, the industry automatically treats it like a fluke, and the female director will have to work twice as hard, and will be under greater scrutiny on their second, and any future projects.




CONCLUSION

Aeon Flux is not a good film. It has pacing issues, a thin story, regardless of the foundational source material, the action is full of wire work and edited quickly to hide poor choreography and the dialogue is atrocious. Sociologically, there are a lot of interesting things that this film touches on but does not delve into with any meaningful depth. None of the responsibility for this should have been laid at the feet of Karyn Kusama. It is not her fault, but she bared the brunt of the consequences; taking her another 4 years to be offered another film. Imagine if she was given another opportunity sooner than that, and what if she was encouraged to keep writing and directing her own work? It is another common story of Hollywood dispossessing another female Hollywood auteur in favor of the fraternal order of fragile filmmakers.       

 

REFERENCES

Foucault, Michel 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison new York: Vintage Books

Goffman, Erving 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books

Kelner, Douglas 1984. “From 1984 to One-Dimensional Man: Critical Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse” Retrieved at https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell13.htm Retrieved on 11/5/2022

Mills, C. Wright 2000. The Power Elite New York: Oxford University Press

Weber, Max 2019. Economy and Society: A New Translation Massachusetts, Harvard University Press

 

 



[2] Goffman (1961) Asylums

[3] (12 states Abortion is illegal, and in an additional 13 states, laws are openly hostile to abortion access) 

[4] The Handmaid’s Tale being the common example, and used often in protests


Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Films of Karyn Kusama: GirlFight

 


            The first film in my Analysis of The Films of Karyn Kusama, is the coming-of-age drama Girlfight. As with Christopher Nolan and Following, a lot of what we see here from Kusama is in its embryonic stages. While Kusama has always had a decerning eye and a distinct filmmaking style, her shot compositions, themes, pacing, and narrative structure has a rustic organization in this debut, which gets refined with each subsequent film. This is mostly due to the struggles with financing and control of the film, (Something that has always plagued Kusama) rather than a sharp improvement in quality. In looking at Kusama’s first feature through a Sociological lens, it is both a product and representation of the 90’s movie scene. The film also wrestles with third wave feminism while also embodying the idea of female anger as a path to empowerment. In this paper, I tackle the intersections of this film with the changing landscape of feminism at the time it was made; as both a reflection of the struggles fought, and the foundation for the mainstreaming of feminism, by turning it into a product.


 


PLOT

An angsty and angry teen, Diana (Michelle Rodriquez in her first role), seeks an outlet for her emotional turmoil and an escape from the aggression and emotional abuse of her father.  Finding solace in a local boxing gym, and its training by its sagely patron (Jaime Tirelli) Diana goes on a journey of self-discovery. As she grows in skills and confidence with each win, Diana challenges the masculine gatekeeping and casual sexism in the sport’s culture, going so far as to sacrifice her burgeoning relationship with a fellow boxer, when he becomes an obstacle.

 


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Production

Kusama conceived of this film in 1992 when she was taking boxing classes at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Kusama wanted to circumvent the typical boxing story by placing a woman at its center, something that was still novel and had resistance against in the late 1990’s when she was putting the film together. This lack of confidence in a female led boxing film caused the initial financier to pull out of the project two days before pre-production was about to begin (Smith 2000). The American Film Institute contributed $300,000, but most of the funding came from Kusama’s mentor, John Sales, who believed in the film’s premise and Kusama’s vision.

Production only lasted 24 days because that was how long the financing would last and still allow for consistency across all aspects of the filmmaking. Kusama scouted locations that would fit the scene as is; rather than having to dress the set themselves, thereby saving time and money. The result was that the main gym location had paint chipping off the walls and poor ventilation which caused some health issues for the cast and crew. Because they had to shoot on real locations, there was also a lot of difficulty maintaining sound as they could not afford to block off whole parts of the city, or even be able to have a track car.  Everything was whittled down to be shorter and simpler than originally conceived, to stretch the small budget as far as it could go.  

 

            Third-Wave Feminism

According to Jessica Valenti (2014) Feminism can be defined as:

1)      The belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all the sex and gender identities within the gendered spectrum, which incorporates an understanding of standpoint differences based upon age, race, class, disability, sexual orientation, cultural and religious ideology.

2)       An organization and socio-political movement around such a belief.

Since 1848, the US Feminist movement has been organized into “waves”; each with specific goals, achievements, setbacks, problems, and prominent figures. Currently, there have been four consecutive waves of feminism, with the possibility of a “Fifth Wave” emerging. During the development and production of Girlfight, feminism had just recently entered its “Third wave”. Coined by Rebecca Walker in 1992, due to the outrange felt by many after the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court after the Anita Hill decision, Third wave feminism (1989-2010) was known for fighting back the anti-feminist movement that rose out of the hyper conservative corporate cultural flavor of 1980’s individualism ( Hyde Amendment, Bombing/ defunding of abortion clinics, murdering of abortion doctors). The Movement saw many successes: the Sexual Harassment ban by hostile environment 1986, the most women elected to congress at one single time in 1992, The federal ban against raping your wife 1993, The Family medical leave Act 1993, Violence against women Act 1994, FGM being made illegal in US in 1997, No Late term abortions 2003, and the Liddy Ledbetter Act of 2009.

Even with these successes, third wave feminism was not without its struggles and detractors. Many in the third wave were weaned on feminism from their second wave parents, it being like “fluoride in the water” for some of them (Baumgardner and Richards 2000). Because of this, many in the Third Wave had their brand of activism compared to their parents; often by their parents themselves. The former chastising the latter for not being serious enough and taking the struggles and successes of the second wave for granted.

Because the feminism of the second wave was ubiquitous for a lot of third wave activists, that as the third wave began to take shape, there was an active resistance to the term feminism. The Second Wave had struggled to shake off the gender stereotypes put upon them as only wives and mothers by showing that they were more than the societal roles they were assigned. The public responded with the most vile and misogynistic feminist stereotypes that were also racist and homophobic. This made sure that anyone who identified as a feminist, the stereotype would henceforth be applied, and they would be shunned. This made “Feminism” into “the other F word”. Many in the public actively rejected it regardless of whether their personal politics aligned or not. Thus, people could spout feminist rhetoric and still champion women’s rights, but they would always stop short of calling themselves a “feminist”, often invoking the racist homophobic stereotype(s) as a reason. Many (usually white) women would go on to declare that they support women’s rights, and believe in women’s equality, but they would not call themselves a “Feminist”. Typical reasons would be: “because they love men”, or “aren’t angry and like to wear dresses”; believing these things to be mutually exclusive, due to the second wave stereotype. This criticism continued even among feminists. Many older Second Wave Feminist pushed back against the cis gender presenting “girlie feminism” of some members of the third wave who embraced the desire to express a more feminine presenting identity, including the occasional wearing of make-up and high heels. An image that Second Wave scholars worked so hard to dispel. It was this unfortunate rejection of feminism in the public consciousness that allowed it to become popularized and eventually commodified.

 Embodied by the glam girl power of the Spice Girls in the mid 90’s, the popularization of feminism became an unintentional harbinger of what Andi Zeisler (2016) calls “Marketplace Feminism”. A consequence of Marxian commodification and cultural assimilation, Marketplace Feminism is the “celebrity consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool fun accessible identity that anyone can adopt… [becoming] decontextualized [and] depoliticized (Zeisler 2016: xiii). This is a product of the commodification of ideology that allows for the expression of beliefs and identity to be satisfied through consumerism. No longer do you need to provide your activist street cred Bona fides; instead, you can just by a t-shirt, tote bag or water bottle while sharing an Instagram story and retweeting your favorite Feminist you follow. However, it is important to note that digital activism and the online feminist communities are not the problem (we wouldn’t have the fourth wave without it). Even the popularity of feminism is not the problem. The problem, is when that ideology and movement becomes absent of historical and political contexts and a driving force for change ( Zeisler 2016). By combining consumerism and activism into a single action, feminism and other ideologies are ultimately weakened. It minimizes the likelihood of active participation in their respective movement(s). People instead believe that they have done enough through their consumerist action, which now absolves them of the guilt of just being a consumerist (Zizek 2009). Being a consumerist and an activist can now be performed through the same behavior. This causes many people to engage/express their ideologies in extraordinarily mundane ways, making activism just another activity. It is the capitalistic transformation of the sacred into the profane (Durkheim 2001, Weber 2019). We have seen this with a variety of protest participants during the marches of 2016 and 2020, whom either after or before the marches, had brunch, went shopping, or other leisure activities.    

This was the feminist climate in which Kusama’s film was both a product of third wave feminism and a foundation for its subsequent fourth wave. The term “Girlfight”, as Kusama uses it here, is an evocative reversal of the public use of the term and its derivatives (“chick fight” etc.), that is far more pejorative, much like the term feminist itself. The irony not being lost on Kusama, that in her film about a female boxer, the first fight that we see Diana in at the start of the film is the stereotypical hair pulling “girlfight”, which, in addition to the juxtaposition of Diana’s skill level at the end of the film, provides a reimagining of the term once Diana sets foot in the ring.  

 

“[Feminists are] just women who don’t want to be treated like shit. S. U.

 


SOCIAL ANALYSIS  

 Gender Socialization of Emotions: Rage

Through the gender socialization of the binary system (the false belief that there are only two genders based on sex assigned categories) emotions get gendered and erroneously dichotomized. Through a variety of outlets and mechanisms, boys get the message that the only emotion that they have access to, for public display, is anger. Not only is this denying the emotional complexity of boys outright, but it has the added consequence of teaching boys to filter all their intricate emotions through the lens of anger. Therefore, boys learn to express love through anger, fear through anger, confusion through anger etc. And, since that expression of anger is corporealized through violence, violence becomes masculine and exclusive to men. Any man who expresses another emotion not through their protective anger amulet, will be sanctioned, cracking their very fragile masculinity, and having to rebuild it through violence, sexism, or self-medication (fighting, sexual conquest, and alcohol consumption, respectively). This also makes any violent sport exclusively masculine; building an exclusionary culture around it that is difficult to penetrate.

Meanwhile, women are allowed to publicly feel and express a variety of different emotions with little sanction, as long as one of those emotions isn’t anger. Public expression of anger is so illusive to women that when they feel it, they need to bury it or deflect it. Otherwise, they will be sanctioned by being called overly emotional, erratic, psychotic or have men suspiciously blame their anger on menstruation…every day.  In this process, women are excluded from the masculine monopoly of violence especially any activity that produces it, especially Boxing.

Girlfight is a film that challenges these fraudulent notions of emotional exclusivity while displaying the difficulty of having to navigate the system and cultural behaviors that have made this emotional duplicity endemic in our society. At every turn, Diana hits the wall of sexism. Whether that be when she tries to get a trainer, a proper sparring partner or a real legitimate match, she is constantly told what girls are, and therefore what she should be.  This resistance is fueled not only by basic gender socialization of emotions, but by the symbolic fear of castration.

“The spectacle of women with power interacting with the spectacle of women deploying guns, filet knives, lead pipes, and tanks gave the news media chills- and plenty to churn through, and sell as they both manage and inflamed what, in retrospect, seems like a national bout of Castration Anxiety” (Douglas 2010:56)       

In Girlfight, Adrian is afraid to fight Diana because of what losing to her would mean, and he tries to back out. Similarly, Diana’s father is worried how her boxing will negatively affect him.

Power has been defined and represented through the male body for most of the media’s existence, defining power in physical strength and emotional stoicism. This has become so intrinsic to the male identity that it tips the hand of fragile masculinity. It reveals that Masculinity is not powerful, it is not divine; Instead, it is a mechanism of social control which teaches cisboys and cismen to deflect, repress and supplant their fear through violence. Because all Cismen are in a perpetual state of fear, without the tools to change it, when ciswomen enter a male space, there is a fear of alienation and usurpation among men. Thus, men use anger as a destructive force to raze and ruin. This infantile expression illustrates the perpetual state of arrested development most men find themselves in; using violence to achieve their selfish desires.

            Conversely, our society does not give women a place for their anger. There is no institution, faith, or system where they can go to unburden themselves. This is because anger and rage are so anathematic to the concept of femininity (Lenz 2018). Therefore, women must carve out space for themselves and their anger (as Diana did with Boxing). When women are able to harness their anger, they, unlike men, are neither apocryphal nor selfish.  Many women have cultivated and channeled their anger into activism (Traister 2018). Their outrage becomes nightmare fuel for the patriarchy, using it to smash the oppressive system into powder, while not being above violence to achieve that dismantling, and having an emotional catharsis while doing it.  Diana embodies this towards the end of Girlfight when she finally stands up to her drunken father, beats him and expresses her dominance over him. At the end of the film, Diana finds both a place for her anger (in boxing) and uses it to smash the patriarchically oppressive yok of her family.

 


CONCLUSION

            Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight is not only a treatise on third wave feminism and the importance of the harnessing of female rage, but it was also the grand entrance for Karyn Kusama into the film industry. Beloved by the festival circuit, this film was either nominated or won all the awards. Between Cannes and Sundance, Kusama became the indie darling. Despite the film underperforming at the box office (not making even its modest budget back), Kusama got through the door, but unfortunately with her next film, Aeon Flux, Kusama got too far ahead of the audience that was going to judge her.  

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux

Douglas, Susan J. 2010. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. New York: Times Books.

Durkheim, Emile 2001. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life New York: Oxford University Press

Lenz, Lyz 2018. “All the Angry Women” Pp 155-166 In Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture  edited by Roxane Gay New York: Harper Perennial

Smith, Dinitia (October 1, 2000). "FILM; Now It's Women's Turn to Make It in the Ring". The New York Times.     

Traister, Rebecca 2018. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of a Woman’s Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster

Valenti, Jessica 2014. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters 2nd(ed) New York: Seal Press

Weber, Max 2019. Economy and Society: A New Translation Massachusetts: Harvard University Press  

Zeisler, Andi 2016. We were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

Zizek, Slavoj 2009. First as Tragedy then as Farce New York: Verso Books


Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Films of Karyn Kusama: An Introduction



INTRODUCTION 

Karyn Kusama is the best modern living director that general audiences overlook. Consistently, her films or the work that she is a part of, outright overshadow her own genius. She is a master of shot composition, storytelling, and a variety of other important filmmaking techniques. Kusama’s films are beautiful, rich and vibrant, but also melancholically honest, and gut wrenchingly sad. Everyone should know the brilliance of Karyn Kusama and elevate her as one of the greatest Auteurs. To that end, Karyn Kusama is the next subject of my continual deep dives into directors that I am passionate about. Like those in the previous series, I will be analyzing all of the Films Kusama has directed, with a bonus essay looking at her TV work and her series Yellowjackets.  

 


BACKGROUND

            Born in 1968, Karyn Kusama went on to earn her BFA from the prestigious NYU school of Tisch school of the Arts. After graduating, Kusama worked in the industry while crafting ideas for future projects. However, like a lot of women in the predatory misogynistic industry of Hollywood, she languished in assistant roles, producing music videos, and even outside work as a nanny way longer than the typical sexist dog whistle of “paying your dues” is believable. It was 8 years before she was able to make her first feature, and even with each success, she was given fewer chances to direct features and through the mid-2010’s through the early 2020’s was a director for hire on Premium TV, before producing Yellowjackets for Showtime.

            Kusama is the first director that I will be covering that does not write, produce, and direct all of their own work.  Yet, this is not due to Kusama’s lack of skill and talent, but rather another example of the way this industry punishes women.  Many women, Kusama included, often take “for hire” directing jobs just to be able to live, and fund other passionate projects they may be interested in. Kusama seemed to do this in between each of her feature films.  More broadly, this speaks to the systemic sexism of Hollywood that not only sees women (and women behind the camera) as a niche market, giving women in these roles minimal chances to succeed, and even fewer when the film underperforms. 

            A perfect illustration of this sexist double standard is comparing Kusama’s trajectory with one of her contemporaries, Paul W. S. Anderson.[1]  Anderson first came on the scene in 1994 with the independent film Shopping, which is only remembered for being Jude Law’s first feature. He then graduates to directing bigger budget films that performed well (Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, and Soldier) allowing him to write and direct The Resident Evil Franchise and AVP: Alien vs, Predator both of which were critically panned but modestly made money. Anderson failed upwards as he continued to subject film going audiences to mountains of cinematic trash (the worst being Three Musketeers and Pompeii) each with diminishing box office returns and no positive critical buzz. Yet, after the deathly eruption that was Pompeii, Anderson was still allowed to write, produce, and direct both the final installment of the Resident Evil series and another video game adaptation: Monster Hunter, in 2020. His feature film director credits are double that of Karen Kusama’s despite being of relative same age and starting in the industry at the same time.  

Meanwhile, after she exploded on the scene with Girlfight, Kusama got swept in the under tow of cinematic sexism when her second film, the underrated Aeon Flux, was taken away from her by studio executives who recut the film. They changed characters and storylines (believing Kusama’s vision was too much of an art film) and after it flopped, blamed Kusama for the film's poor box office performance sending her to “director jail”; an industry punishment which is absolutely gendered and keeps women exclusively out of the Director’s chair.  Kusama stayed there for 3 years before Diablo Cody’s next project post Juno fame, Jennifer’s Body, released her. Unfortunately, because of poor marketing and audiences not being ready for such a complex story of female relationships (it has a cult following today), that release from “director jail” was short lived, and Kusama had to do another 6-year stint.  Her Next feature, 2015’s The Invitation was only released in a limited number of theaters and for rent or purchase online. This was at a time before the cultural shift of streaming, and was considered a death sentence for the film.   It was only by the sheer critical acclaim of the film that allowed Kusama to make her final feature, as of this writing, Destroyer in 2018.

The poor box office was always cited as the most criminal offense for Kusama’s directorial incarceration, thereby creating barriers to making features: slashing budgets, lack of final cut, more studio interference etc. Yet, when directors like Paul W S. Anderson, and a whole cavalcade of other douchebag white men with a fraction of the talent and twice the ego fail a lot harder, they are given three times the number of chances.  Is it any wonder that the majority of Kusama’s films have feminist themes and largely center on women and their relationships with others?         

 


THEMES

            Most of Karyn Kusama’s films have a female protagonist and organize around women’s relationships especially with other women.  Because of this, my forthcoming analysis of each film (plus the bonus essay on Season 1 of Yellowjackets) will be heavily influenced by feminist scholarship by Roxane Gay, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, RW Connell, Andi Zeisler and bell hooks; a long with other scholars along the way. What I find intriguing, that I will explore more in future essays, is the stripping away of the conventions of gender socialization that Kusama loves to do, complicating her characters by breaking the stereotypes while still having her characters cling to them.

            Additionally, the way that Kusama paints with adept precision the complexity and subtle variations of grief, loss, and existential dread through the prism of a female prospective is sublime. Many of Kusama’s protagonists are not likable, nor should you root for them, but they are all compelling. Here Kusama is breaking a convention of Hollywood at the same time: that women, to be interesting, must embrace the female stereotypes, or present their emotions in a masculine way. Kusama’s films give you a beautiful cornucopia of female perspectives and expressions that change as the experiences of the film shape them and their decisions. None of the women in her stories escape unscathed and it is the wrestling with these ideas in the complex way that make her films exquisite.

 


CONCLUSION

     To my shame, Karyn Kusama was one of my first “puzzle piece” directors whose work I fell in love with. By “puzzle piece” director I mean that I fell in love with Kusama’s films independently prior to knowing that they were all directed by the same person. But once I put the puzzle pieces of her films together, I found a brilliant auteur whose work I always anticipate[2].  It is my hope, that through this series, and my analysis, you will not only be introduced to and come to appreciate Kusama’s work, but also see the Sociological and Feminist relevance in her storytelling.   

    



[1] Not to be confused by Paul Thomas Anderson Who has also jumped off a cliff with his recent film Licorice Pizza

[2] I am extremely bummed that she had creative differences and left her recent Dracula project called Mina Harker