“Hello, I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?” Netflix’s ‘You’ and unpicking the romanticisation of abuse

By Gemma Murray

 

Netflix latest 10 part series highlights the danger of confusing chivalry and affection with stalking and control.

 

I binged watched You (2018) in a day and half (and then spent the rest of that day rewatching the first 3 episodes.) Even from the trailer, I was hooked — which is fitting, I suppose, for a show which focuses upon addiction and obsession of varying kinds. Season One follows the psychological path of book store manager Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a reserved and seemingly well mannered “hopeless romantic”, who, after a chance encounter with aspiring poet Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), begins a pattern of stalking, abuse and (spoiler alert) murder to make her believe that he is The One. By acknowledging and flipping tropes of standard rom-coms and “chick flicks”, You explores the troubling rhetoric of the male character who will stop at nothing to win over (or win back) “his” girl.

“Until recently, we’ve romanticised and idolised the male character who tries, tries and tries again to convince the girl of his dreams that he’s right for her, and it’s led us into a murky world where we’re unable to separate archaic ideas of romance and chivalry from the actuality of stalking, gaslighting and emotional abuse.” i-D’s Roisin Lanigan succinctly explains our complex relationship with characters like Joe.

What perhaps makes the show so compelling is the multi-faceted nature of its characters; no one, not even Joe, is painted as simply good or bad. Everyone is capable of caring for others, and hurting them in equal measure; Goldberg’s actions take this to both extremes. The show, based upon a novel by author Caroline Kepnes is careful to present Joe as this multi-dimensional character — it makes him all the most relatable and believable. It would be hard to imagine Beck falling for an upfront jerk, an idea Joe himself acknowledges when we are introduced to his neighbours, drug addicted nurse Claudia and drunken parole officer Ron — “you think she knew Ron was a shit bag when she fell in love?” he asks us, and it’s a truth universally applicable to all characters. If you knew who this person really was, would you have invested your time in them?

And yet, everyone seems doomed to repeat their mistakes. The show opens and draws to a close with the same lines from Joe; “well, hello there. Who are you?” he probes. Beck is frequently drawn back to her toxic ex Benji and her privileged college friends, much to the anger and frustration of Joe. Reiteration and repetition are key tools in Yous arsenal; the series’ use of intertextuality and nods to the tropes of romantic fiction frame and attempt to rework motifs and plot lines of the genre which are presented as sentimentally aspirational. Scenes that play out like standard rom-coms are elaborated upon by the scenes surrounding, and expand into a broader context of how we view “romance”, fate and love at first sight. Ideas we’ve all seen employed in New York City fiction such as When Harry Met Sally , Sex and the City, even Friends — the bookstore motif, the search for true love in the Big Apple, the romanticised myth of a “fairytale” dating narrative — are all juxtaposed with Joe’s inner monologue, showing a horrifying progression of thought leading him to believe he is just another man out there fighting for true love. In one later scene, after a temporary hiatus and brief affair, Joe races to Beck’s apartment, and throws a rock through window to announce his commitment to her. “This is it, this is that moment in the movie,” he announces to us, “this is when I run through the rain to win you back”.

“What I loved about that scene [in the shower] so much was, let’s say Beck had opened the curtain and found him. She would’ve freaked out. Then, she would’ve then gone out with her friends and told them the story. By then, it would already have been worked over in her mind: ‘Oh, well, look: I’m so special that this guy snuck in my house to try and see me.’ It would start to feel like, ‘He didn’t hurt me. He was completely apologetic. He was totally regretful and aware of what he did, which is the opposite of what we think of as a ‘stalker.’ I can imagine a world where a few days later Beck still walks back into that bookstore.” Caroline Kepnes speaking to Refinery29 on the dramatisation of her novel.

The scene described above is possibly one of the most uncomfortable to watch in the season; Joe, after breaking into Beck’s apartment, hides in her shower once she returns early from college. After a day in which her lecherous professor has made a thinly veiled pass at her and she is caught between letting him believe things may go further and risking losing her place on the course and thus her subsided housing, she stands inches away from a concealed Goldberg, sobbing in front of her bathroom mirror. “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting in jams like this” Joe professes, and he’s probably right.

Take 1999 high school classic 10 Things I Hate About You, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Cameron employs the help of Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win over Katarina Stratford so that he can date her younger sister Bianca. In an effort to uncover what makes Kat tick, they scour her room for anything Patrick can use to help him in his quest to win her over — this search includes her underwear draw, where they uncover black panties. Her sister remarks their colour must mean she wants to have sex, as you don’t buy black lingerie “unless you want someone to see it”. The idea of violating a woman’s privacy and lying to seem like her “perfect match” is pretty insidious throughout the teen rom-com, and a scene in You when Joe steals Beck’s underwear is just as uneasy viewing. Just as when Patrick attempts to impress Kat with his knowledge of the Raincoats (garnered from a CD found in her room) ‘You’ makes more obvious reference when Beck flippant tells Joe that in listing his favourite poets “you’re describing my nightstand”. What they both share is an underlying connotation that women are puzzles to be cracked, and ‘You’ expands this into the social media age, with Joe commenting that he wants to know what is behind Beck’s instagram “collage” of her life.

Music helps not only to set the tone of the show, but to reflect its underlying themes. The trailer’s theme, a cover of I Want You to Want Me (notably, another cover also appears on the soundtrack of 10 Things…) is one of several songs which highlights the softer and slower cover trope through the series. Taking songs such as this and Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs and representing them reworks the familiar and makes it uncomfortable and sinister. Intentional juxtaposition between these haunting tracks and almost comedic scenes, such as when Joe dances around his room to a vinyl recording of Hes The Great Imposter before his and Beck’s first date, nods to a meta-narrative — a cheeky wink at the fourth wall — in which a subtle comment on the genre is made. Joe’s choice of books as given a metaphors for the characters, such as we he comments that he has a Sylvia Plath to restore, in a “fragile” condition— Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, a tale of a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, tracing their emotional states, or his ex’s favourite novel of Wuthering Heights, a story of doomed love and ultimately a tale of revenge situate the action not just within modern day dating, but a trajectory of how love is depicted in fiction.

“It’s cool how you get the monster’s POV, you understand why he does stuff. It’s weird because he’s bad, but not all bad.” Joe’s young neighbour Paco offers his interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and our possible reading of Joe.

Essentially, You enthralled me so much because of its familiarity; it’s a classic “boy meets girl” tale twisted, which in turns probes and questions how we are shown idealised love stories; in the final episode, Joe traps Beck in the glass chamber below the bookstore, a cage used to preserve the “collectables”. “The most vulnerable things in life are usually the most helpless” he tells us, and this view extends to his view of relationships. So much of the fiction I consumed as a teen presented women as trophies or prizes, objects to be won, and Goldberg’s character of the surface embodies a prince for the Tinder age. Just before Beck’s demise, she begins to write her story, speaking of fairytales — Snow White’s glass coffin and Sleeping Beauty, frozen in time allegories for her entrapment — an acknowledgment of the perilous dynamic in retelling tales of helpless women waiting to be rescued. You reminds us that perhaps a “prince” doesn’t want to free you from a glass coffin, but to lock you away in a glass cage.

Why Do Female Spies Have To Use Seduction As Their Weapon of Choice?

By Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

There’s a moment on 30 Rock where Jenna says to Liz: “Don’t worry. I have a secret weapon.” Liz mutters, “Please don’t say your sexuality,” as Jenna cuts her off: “My sexuality!” While watching the trailer for Red Sparrow, I felt a lot like Liz.

Let’s break this down: the teaser shows Jennifer Lawrence in red, the color of sex, sitting on a bed. We hear a male voice say “Take off your dress.” Then we see her killing the man, having successfully used the secret weapon of her sexuality. We learn that Lawrence is one of a group of Sparrows, who are “trained to seduce and manipulate. To use their bodies. To use everything.” (By everything, the trailer means their sexuality). Really, Hollywood? You give us a female spy, and she’s the Sexy SpyTM? It would be one thing if there were plenty of other female spies out there using weapons other than their sexualities. Unfortunately, there are very few female spy characters, and what do you know—they all use their sexualities as weapons!

Red Sparrow has been compared to Black Widow, since the whole “trained to be a Sexy SpyTM in Russia against her will and also ballet is involved” thing lines up almost exactly. Since Black Widow is probably the most recognizable female spy out there, the fact that she, too, is a hot Russian trained to seduce probably says a lot about what American audiences think about women—and Russia. Despite her knowledge of a dozen martial arts, it’s clear what Black Widow’s real superpower is—her comic book stories have names like Kiss or Kill.

“Your body belongs to the state”,Lawrence’s character Dominika is told during a training session. Like Black Widow, Dominika is forced into the life of a Sexy SpyTM, beginning her training by being brutally raped. She is also forced to strip in front of other cadets, and has to watch disturbingly violent pornography as part of Sparrow sex-ed. The fact that these two spy stories combine Sexy SpyingTM with the absence of consent is especially concerning—and it’s nothing like the backstories of male spies.

Think back: has James Bond ever been raped on the job? Did James Bond have to strip in front of the rest of MI6 to get his license to kill? Is James Bond in the spying business against his will, as the result of blackmail or brainwashing? The answer to all these is obviously no, because James Bond is a man, and he can do spying in a consensual and non-sexy way.

Not only does James Bond have all that going for him, but he also gets to canoodle with the beautiful Tatiana Romanova in 1963’s From Russia, With Love. Tatiana is a Russian spy whose mission—surprise—is to seduce James Bond. Is Hollywood trying to be feminist by literally taking Bond girls and giving them their own movies?! If so, they might want to lose the James Bond sensibilities toward women first, because Red Sparrow shows that a female lead does not a feminist spy movie make.

Interview with Amelia Baron

What compelled you to start making art?

I was always a very arty kid, but I rekindled my love for art when my mental health deteriorated. I found that making art became a therapy, and allowed me to cope with intense emotions in a healthier way.

 

At the start, was your work spurred on by seeing the work of other artists?

At first it was just the process of producing work to keep my mind busy, therefore it wasn’t heavily influenced. At university though, research and outside influence has to be documented and graded, so that’s when I began taking inspiration from great artists such as Marina Abramovic and my ultimate favourite, Yayoi Kusama.

 

How do you see the influence that those two artists have had on your work? What about them inspired you?

Abramovic’s work opened up a whole new practice in which I could express myself. Performance art has this immediacy about it and a radical way of withholding the audience’s gaze. I want the viewer to leave my performances with the issues I’m trying to portray at the front of their conscience.

Kusama also worked with performance art in the late 60s, but what inspires me most about her as an amazing woman, is that she uses her art as a weapon to counteract the daily mental health struggles she faces. At the age of 88 she still continues to create art despite having been a residence at the Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo since 1977. A true warrior!

 

What are you working on/planning on working on next?

I’m currently working on the concept of control. I’ve recently found myself in a position where my control is very limited, so making do with the materials around me I’m creating a physical piece that hopefully visualises this battle for control and the mental and physical endurance that coincides with it.

 

What place do you think control has in the world?

It’s hugely dominating in more ways than we imagine. Control can be seen in the larger scale of politics, society and authority but can also be seen in the simple day to day scenarios of independent choice and obsession. Control can be used for both positive and negative outcomes, but like with power, we need to be conscious of the consequences.

 

What do you want to communicate about control in your work?

In the grand scheme of things I’d really love my art to communicate not just the role of control, but the wider effects that mental health has upon an individual, and also within society. Mental Health has become a more commonplace subject- especially on social media sites, however I still feel there’s a lot of people out there who are ashamed and embarrassed by their struggles, myself included. Therefore by producing art based on these struggles I hope to offer the chance to open up a discourse, or at least let the viewer know they’re not alone in their daily battles.

 

How do you feel about the way mental health is depicted in mainstream media?

More awareness has been made but there’s still so much more that can be done. I also find that it can have negative affects at times, especially when it comes to cases such as anorexia, the stories seem glorified and can be extremely triggering. For example, social media and magazines are saturated with “before and after selfies”. That’s why I try to use my art to show the behaviours behind the emaciated figures, or the images we so often associate with anorexia, depression, obsession etc.

 

How important is the process to you (when compared to the importance of the final product)?

For my piece Obsession For Perfection, process held significant importance. Through the process, the physical and emotional drain that accompanies mental illness could be witnessed. For a lot of my work, the final product is ephemeral, although photos and objects do exist for documentation purposes, and my website, but the processes within my performance are a critical way of really engaging with my audience.

 

Where do your ideas begin?

A lot of my ideas stem from autobiographical experiences and emotions. And it’s because of this I still worry that others may see my work as narcissistic and egocentrical.

 

Do you see that in other artist’s autobiographical work? 

No, I actually find other artist’s autobiographical art intriguing, as there’s always a story to tell. I think it’s just paranoia about my own work as when I was a child, and even now, I struggle being the centre of attention- I much prefer being a wallflower and observing others. I’m terrible- I’ll take myself to my favourite coffee shops in Leeds and sit by the window with a book but end up just people watching, it’s my form of escapism when I feel overwhelmed!

 

What direction do you see your work going in the future?

I have no idea about the future, which is absolutely terrifying, but also exciting. I guess for now I’ll just take each day as it comes.

 

You can find out more about Amelia’s work here: http://ameliakatebaron.wixsite.com/artist

Two Short Films by Barbara Hammer- Dyketactics and Superdyke Meets Madam X

By Sarah Gonnet

These two films from the 1970s were recently shown at the London Film Festival and are currently available on MUBI.

Dyketactics is a sensual film with no words. Instead the soundtrack is a repeated tune played on an electronic instrument. The film features the first female/female sex scene directed by a lesbian. For this reason alone it would hold a place in history, however it is also a skilful depiction of female passion. In Dyketactics female sexual pleasure is directed and coordinated by solely female hands. Some would say that this takes it away from the male gaze often present in lesbian sex scenes. However, although Hammer does take key steps away from showing female/female sex in a male dominated gaze; she does rely on some tropes which are commonly used by men. For example, comparing women’s body parts to fruits. This highlights the women’s fertility.

Superdyke Meets Madam X also features lesbian sex. However the most interesting part of this slightly longer film, is its use of language. To a certain extent this second film explains the context to the first (Dyketactics). The words spoken are instinctive and improvised, but they explore the way that the women in Hammer’s sex scenes are real people. Hammer uses this film to state that the women in her films are not just objects.

The State- Shakira’s Story

By Catherine Hume

When I watched The State – a fictional account of four British-born Muslim characters who went to Syria to fight for IS – I was sort of aware of what to expect.  I’m a fan of the American drama Sleeper Cell, so I was keen to watch this UK offering.

The UK tabloids panicked, as did a government advisor, saying that The State would act as a Recruiting Sergeant for IS.  I had had the same worries when I first saw Sleeper Cell advertised.  When you actually watch these dramas, you soon see that these fears are silly.

While Sleeper Cell focusses on men’s conversion to terrorism and the political back stories to each character as well as world politics, The State claims it focuses on four characters, but in fact focuses on two and brings in several minor characters to flesh out issues and enrich the main characters’ stories.  Most reviews focused on Jalal’s story, but I was fascinated by Shakira’s storyline.

It wasn’t Shakira being a woman that caught my attention, but that her story was fascinating.  The writer Peter Komisky had clearly put a lot of thought into Shakira’s storyline so that her reason for joining IS in Syria seemed more unusual and even good.  Shakira Boothe is a Black British doctor, a new convert to Islam and a single mother who takes her 9 year old son with her to Syria.  Her reason seems – at first – noble; she came to Syria to work as a doctor in the hospital, to tend to the wounded.  She has a great, trusting, loving relationship with her son Isaac and she knows the Qur’an by heart.

Yet all this doesn’t make sense; Shakira has taken her young son to a war zone where they are controlled in every way from the moment they arrive.  As per all the UK recruits, Shakira seems totally unaware of how brutal Islamic State really is and that the new recruits would be subject to the harsh conditions of life under IS rule.  There is the argument that the recruits have all been brainwashed as with the members of any cult and so are victims of abuse, but that doesn’t sit well with the fact that we all know the horror stories of IS.  How could Shakira support the people who enslave other women and murder innocent civilians?  It goes against the teachings of the Qur’an – of which Shakira is a big fan – and it simply doesn’t fit with Shakira’s compassionate personality.

When she arrives in Syria, Shakira and the other new female recruits are shocked when their (white European and American) senior “sisters” tell them that they will not be allowed to fight.  They are told that what they have read on social media about IS and female fighters is a lie; men’s bodies are made for fighting and women’s bodies are made for bearing babies.  The lies the female recruits have been told are backed by research that shows it is necessary for IS to recruit as much as possible from the UK and Europe because foreign IS fighters tend to be more driven by ideology.  European recruits are less questioning because they don’t know the realities of life under IS rule.  This drama showed how utterly clueless the UK recruits were.  Ony Uhiara said that she gained insight for her role as Shakira through listening to the stories of women who had returned to the UK from living under Islamic State.

Shakira and the other female recruits are taken to the women’s quarters – a sort of grotesque commune that looks more like the old squat in Eastenders, complete with stained mattresses on the floor and plastic chairs where women darn bomb-damaged niqabs by gas lamp light.  The women’s quarters are a bit different from the men’s quarters which look like an advertisement for Mediterranean holiday homes, complete with a swimming pool.

Throughout the four episodes of The State, Shakira shows her knowledge of the Qur’an and uses it to do good and to escape situations, and she uses the term “brother” to men she can’t stand and quotes verses of the Qur’an in order to make her voice heard.  Shakira gets her nine year old son to act as her male guardian – a requirement for any woman who wishes to venture outside the house; and they go to the hospital where the Taliban soldier in charge tells Shakira to go home.  Shakira tells him she is answering the call from the leaders of IS for anyone who has skills that could be used in Syria to help the IS cause.  A doctor intervenes and puts Shakira to work as a doctor under strict conditions.

So Shakira is able to work as a doctor – in an abaya instead of scrubs, and she must wear her thick, black gloves instead of surgical gloves, all under the watch of the IS commander.  Shakira soon finds that rules must be obeyed.  She even must cover her face during a bomb blast when she is desperate to locate her son and help the injured.  The American “sister” tells Shakira she must get married along with the other sisters.  The Taliban commander at the hospital is proposed.  Of course Shakira hates the idea, but it is the only way she would be allowed to continue working at the hospital.  Shakira tells her son Isaac about the proposed marriage.  Isaac also hates the idea, but he then suggests that Shakira marries “the nice doctor”.  Shakira sneaks out to the doctor’s house.  It turns out he is homosexual, so a marriage of convenience is more than convenient for both parties, so they marry and make beautiful medicine.

Shakira’s days in Syria are taken up with treating bomb victims and preserving her own life.  The bombings and the threat of disapproval from the “sisters” and the Taliban commander are always there.  Yet Shakira has taken her eye off another ball.  In between being severely beaten for not harvesting kidneys from living prisoners and avoiding bomb blasts at the hospital, Shakira goes to see Isaac at school and is shocked to find her once sweet, loving, respectful nine year old playing football with his classmates, using a severed head in the place of a ball.  Isaac has also taken to wearing IS logo bandanas and carries a Kalashnikov.  This is one of the other glaring inconsistencies in Shakira and Isaac’s story.  At first Isaac is horrified at the display of severed heads in the streets, and a couple of weeks later he is playing with a severed head.  The transition was far too fast, and the ways by which Isaac was radicalised is not shown, apart from it happening at school.  Isaac had been raised in the UK and found IS activities disgusting.  The change in him is too unbelievable.

Ushna, the other female UK recruit that the drama features, tells Shakira that Isaac is being prepared for his life as an IS fighter and future martyr, and Shakira shouts, “I don’t want him prepared!”  Shakira has come to Syria with the one intention of saving lives and treating wounds.  She has not considered what bringing her son to Syria would mean for him, just as she had not considered what it would mean for her.  Shakira, again, comes across as blinkered, and perhaps this is part of the brain washing that she has undergone.  However, Isaac’s radicalisation is the one turning point for Shakira.  Her mother’s instinct finally kicks in, although we do have to ask where on earth her mother’s instinct has been for the rest of the series.

Out of all the characters, Shakira seems the most noble-hearted.  At the outset it seemed she simply wanted to go to Syria to help treat the wounded, and that she was prepared to sacrifice her own freedoms and fit herself into a very tight framework to help others like the heroic Muslim women of the past and present.  She seems so noble, she seems so good.  Yet at the very end of the drama, the UK police read out pro-IS propaganda Shakira had written on social media, encouraging other UK nationals to come and fight in Syria and she is told, “Not exactly been a good mother, have you?”

I have never seen Ony Uhiara in anything before, but I have loved her in The State.  I have heard UK Muslim women who wear the niqab say that the eyes can communicate everything about the person – the niqab hides nothing.

I get the impression that Peter Komisky had a great story to tell, but didn’t quite get the characters and their back stories right, so he made the characters fit into the drama he wrote without challenging the characters enough or asking them enough questions.  I think the main problem Komisky had was time.  The State was aired over four one-hour episodes, whereas both seasons of Sleeper Cell were twenty episodes long, which gave the writers plenty of scope to cover the back stories of each character, so that the characters, and the story they were walking through, made complete sense.  While twenty episodes may have been too long for The State, maybe one more episode would have given Komisky the room he needed to let the characters make sense.

I doubt anyone can watch The State without dwelling on the fact that the pure barbarism we have only had a relatively sanitised glimpse of is the reality of life, non-stop, 24/7 for thousands of people.  The State raises so many questions for us and focuses our minds on horrendous incidents that many in the West have tried hard to ignore.  Well done Peter Komisky, and thank you for making us watch.

Angels and Androids; Questioning the Portrayal of Replicant Women in ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Blade Runner (2049)’

By Gemma Murray

To date I’ve seen Blade Runner (2049) three times, and after much pondering and contemplation, I just can’t enjoy it. While the film is visually and musically rather stunning, beneath the surface I’m yet to identity any of the philosophical richness which made Ridley Scott’s original a piece of film history.

I do however remain disappointed at the general lack of criticism surrounding both the original and the 2017 sequel – a sense of nostalgia, perhaps, for the cult of the 1985 Scott film, has lead to lacklustre reviews and over-the-top gushing for the latest installment of Rick Deckard’s story. Denis Villeneuve’s new chapter sees Harrison Ford return as bounty hunter, or ‘blade runner’, Rick Deckard, who we learn has fathered a child with replicant Rachael. LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with hunting down and retiring this child, for fear that a breakdown of the boundaries between organic and artificial worlds initiate a war between replicants and humans. A replicant himself, K begins to question his origins and identity in a world increasingly partitioned into real and constructed. I came away from each screening feeling incredibly underwhelmed – the film is set in 2049, and even then all humanity wants is for women to bear children? It was almost as if I had witnessed a less 70’s and far less outlandish Zardoz, in which all women were secretly dying to give up infinite life and knowledge in order to father Sean Connery’s children and grow old as mothers. Several friends commented that had Blade Runner (2049) truly wanted to push boundaries and question what makes us human, why not reverse the gender roles entirely? Why not a child born to a replicant father? Why must we watch a film in which, yet again, men design women to fill roles created by them – idolised mothers, subservient workers and sexual playthings, all eager to please. Unfortunately, rather than any sort of subversion or even a playful kind of mimicry, the movie took tropes and simply re-imagined them for the future.

 

Jared Leto features as Niander Wallace, CEO of the Wallace Corporation, an organisation who took on Dr Tyrell’s company and research following the collapse of Tyrell’s replicant empire. Wallace’s quest for the pinnacle of human replication – machines which can reproduce much like humans – sees him carelessly stab a “female” replicant to death in front of his engineered assistant Luv.  He notes that ‘we lost our stomach for slaves… unless engineered’ and talks of storming Eden with his angels. The connotation of “angels” – from those on Victoria Secret catwalks to Peter Stringfellows’ Soho “gentlemen’s” club – has an over-arching effect upon how female characters are depicted, as objects to be read as both innocent and pure, yet inherently sexualised. Although never displayed as sexual in nature, Luv’s wish to please her creator traverses a master/slave dynamic, with Wallace telling her she’s “the best angel” and K noting that for Wallace to name her, she must be special.

There seems to be little character development and a lack of complexity to the female characters Villeneuve creates, each fulfilling a certain aspect of conventional femininity – K’s holographic “girlfriend” Joi and a pleasure replicant Mariette offer a madonna/whore dualism which is later exploited in a lesbian fantasy threesome scene with the officer, and makes for some seriously uncomfortable viewing. Joi, wishing to please K, enlists Mariette’s body in order to have sex with him; Mariette, also harbouring feelings for K, agrees to participate, and the scene plays out as two love rivals hoping to both belong to him, through playing into a cliched male fantasy. What I found more baffling than the scene itself was to read a review of it as some kind of utopian sexual encounter, in which we don’t even need bodies to connect on a sensual level – a notion I’ve been fascinated and invested in since reading Sadie Plant’s 1999 Coming Across the Future. Yet I feel in this instance it becomes an idea utilised to take any sense of humanity out of these women, and render them “engineered slaves” for whom satisfying male desires in simply a job they are programmed to do. Hearing Joi tell her owner K that she loves him and gush affectionately about his uniqueness and brilliance becomes rather stomach-turning, and a projected advert for her model later in the film is a stark reminder that she is created solely for the purpose of being whatever her owner wants her to be. Much like moments in Scott’s 1985 installment, there is an underlying air of misogyny and predatory behaviour to much of the male character’s “relationships” with their constructed women.

 

Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel with which the Blade Runner films take their basis, painstakingly details Rachael’s appearance, with Deckard noting the almost “childlike” proportions of her body – ‘the total impression was good’ he concludes ‘although definitely that of a girl, not a woman’, a comment which further confuses their sexual encounter mere pages later. In a similarly sexual scene, Rachael remarks that she cannot bear children, before loudly stating ‘“I’m not alive! You’re not going to bed with a woman.”’ (Dick, 1968, p.165), a comment which adds far greater philosophical richness to the scene than that of the vulgar portrayal of Ridley Scott’s adaptation. Rachael questions Deckard about his interactions with replicants, and the implications of “making love” to one. ‘“Have you ever made love to an android before?”’ she interrogates ‘“I understand – they tell me – it’s convincing if you don’t think too much about it…” ; her awareness in this scene (she later tells Deckard that androids cannot control their physical, sensual passions’ and that, him knowing this fact, he most likely ‘took advantage’ of her) and the frank manner in which she speaks of her place within the world play with questions of artificial and organic consciousness, and to what extent she truly has sense of her self.

 

Scott’s take on this excerpt results in potentially one of the most uncomfortable and morally questionable scenes within the original film, and what I shall term the “rape scene” of Blade Runner. In the aftermath of learning her true origin and the false nature of her memories, Rachael returns to Deckard’s house to find him sleeping. Finding old photographs on top of a piano, she sits down at it and begins to play; slowly taking down her hair, the camera stays close upon her made-up face. She begins to play a song, waking Deckard, who rises and comes to join her – he notes that she plays “beautifully” and Rachael laments upon lessons she remembers taking, unsure as to whether they are hers or Tyrell’s niece. When Deckard begins to kiss her neck, she recoils and runs to the door, with Rick chasing behind her. He slams the door shut as she tries to leave, throwing her against a wall; the camera flips between their faces and Rachael trembles as if she is on the verge of tears, while Deckard continues to encroach upon her. He instructs her to kiss him – “say “kiss me” Deckard orders, ”I want you”… again” and Rachael uncomfortably repeats his commands.

 

Is this the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy, I wonder? Will science take us only as far as the ability to remove subjectivity from the female body for the pleasure of men? Rachael is created in the image of woman, to be projected upon by them and for them – I am myself still unsure as to whether she eventually succumbs to his advances, or has simply been ordered to as an object for male desire. Blade Runner’s “women” become like a kind of sexual simulacra in the hands of Scott and Villeneuve, an image which speaks of and refers to the women but is empty, and perhaps this stems the root of Deckard’s and K’s arousal. Much like Joi, Rachael is somewhat of a living sex doll, exhilaratingly close to the real thing but with just a hint of dissimilitude.

Sisters are Doing it for Themselves in The Sycamore Gap

By Susan England

Award-winning Newcastle director and writer Lucy Rose Wilson-Green didn’t listen to conventional wisdom when it came to making her short film The Sycamore Gap.  In fact, to paraphrase the Beatles, she got by with a lot of help from her friends and the kindness and generosity of Newcastle City Council and the National Trust.

For her last project in the Film and TV Production Studies programme at Northumbria University, Ms. Wilson-Green wanted to pull out all the stops and really push her team.  Self-funded, The Sycamore Gap was filmed in Mansion House in Jesmond and in the historic and scenic Sycamore Gap along Hadrian’s Wall.  According to Wilson-Green, Newcastle City Council, owner of Mansion House, granted the use of the period property pro gratis and the crew worked closely with the National Trust to use the lovely Sycamore Gap free of charge for filming.

Costumes were donated, made by crafty members of the team or obtained from charity shops, and alterations were done by Wilson-Green herself and producer Sarah Talbot.  Foregoing advice against self-funding, approximately £700 along with lots of help from friends, family, film crew and cast, the Newcastle City Council, National Trust and many others gave birth to this labour of love.  Wilson-Green said she knew that this was the last time she would have so much control over a project, so she followed her dream.  Having already won the Best Director Award at the Indie Wise International Film Festival, as well as participating in multiple film festivals, Wilson-Green hopes for similar success with The Sycamore Gap.

Set in 1841, the film focuses on a romantic liaison between Mina, the housemaid and a woman of colour, and Clara, the wealthy lady of the house.  Both women live in fear of Clara’s wealthy husband James and the possible consequences if he discovers the affair.  Of all the characters, Mina has the most to lose if her affair is discovered.

Wealthy husband James is played by Michael Adamson, graduate of Northumbria University. He has appeared in a number of indie stage and film performances.  Asked about his experience in dealing with an almost all female cast and crew compared with a mostly-male endeavour he said, “The biggest difference I can find within working with mostly male or female productions seems to be the intent on how to capture each scene. Most female directors I have worked with put emphasis on finding the truth of each character and their relationships, and using that basis to create inspired moments for the film. Male directors often seem to explain the aesthetic they want to capture at the climactic point of a scene and work backwards from there.”

Furthermore, Adamson readily admits he would work again in a similar mostly-female project, “Absolutely! I think it’s important to have a diversity of people in most productions as it offers more perspectives to work from, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on this project and haven’t seen a reason to reject future mostly female productions.”

Sophie Nattrass, who was born in Northumberland, plays lady of the house Clara.  Originally a young model who has appeared on the cover of a number of notable publications such as Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue Italia, she has also appeared in TV programmes such as George Gently and The Paradise on BBC and Vera on ITV.  She holds a BA Hons Performance degree from Northumberland University.

Nattrass confesses that the part of Clara in The Sycamore Gap is her favourite role thus far. When asked why, she said, “I think it was the fact that she is such a strong character but also very complex to play. It’s always interesting playing a character that you can really get under their skin and play pure raw emotions.”  She elaborates on her feelings towards the character Clara, “I think what I liked best was her strength and courage to go after what she wants as that wasn’t what women of that time did. I think one thing I liked the least was how misunderstood she is, as she was seen as selfish and a terrible person but that wasn’t the case at all and hopefully the audience will see her side of the story as she is incredibly brave and strong.”

Kristel Buckley, who plays Mina, the housemaid and woman of colour, was a third year Zoology student at Newcastle University when asked to take part in The Sycamore Gap. However, Buckley has acted from a young age and is currently a member of the National Youth Theatre and has trained professionally in musical theatre.

Buckley identifies with and admires the character Mina. “I definitely felt a kinship between myself and Mina. I think I identify with the wanting to break free of constraints, and relationships that aren’t making you happy. Mina has a strength that I wish I had and I think stepping into her shoes has made me think differently about situations in my own life. This strength, matched with her sense (of self), is what I admire most about her, she identifies the right course of action, and no matter how difficult it may be. She follows what she knows is right.”  Taking part in The Sycamore Gap has reinforced Buckley’s love of acting and she is currently applying to drama schools.

Buckley feels issues covered in The Sycamore Gap speak to society today. “I think we have moved forward leaps and bounds since the time that the film is set, and the incidents of racism as obvious as this in my life have happened, but have been very rare. Though, as I mentioned in my interview, now things aren’t normally overtly prejudice, but there are still inequalities. For example, socioeconomic status in this country. Often people of colour will experience more obstacles and have very little options, rendering social mobility very difficult. This is similar to Mina’s situation in the film, yet not specific to an individual, and not as obvious. I believe this film holds up a mirror to today’s society and asks, how much have you really changed? And while in many aspects, we’ve irrefutably improved, in others, we still have some work to do.”

The Sycamore Gap film launch is 27 January 2018 from 6pm to 8pm at Thought Foundation, Birtley.  Further details may be found here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cool-girl-pictures-launch-and-the-sycamore-gap-short-film-screening-tickets-41122367107.

Film remakes, love em or hate em?

By Kelcie Warner

With remakes coming out of Hollywood left, right and center are we starting to bore with the lack of originality, or does it allow for people to enjoy something they love, but with a different take on things? Disney has taken the lead by bringing back their old childhood favorites, but this time in the form of live action. Disney films have been well loved for years, and perhaps the remakes for many are a way for people to relive their childhood memories. But, with them taking away the more childlike animation side of things, are they also catering to a bigger audience now, hence widening their popularity? You only need to do a quick google search to see the success of two of their previous movies, Cinderella, Beauty and The Beast and The Jungle Book.

However, does this research also show us that it could be nothing more than a chance to make some big bucks? The Jungle Book, released in 2016 was produced with an estimated budget of $175 million (£132.5 million,) and its gross box office takings were $966 million (£732.5 million,) according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. That is an astonishing amount of profit. It’s interesting to see the breakdown of this figure, with $66 million of that coming from UK audiences alone. But, the biggest market lies in America with them taking $364 million. So, with Disney being an American company, they are definitely aware of where their main market lies and are catering to it.

Similarly, with Cinderella, with a smaller budget of $95 million, it still raked in $543 million in the box office. That’s another big return right there. Beauty and The Beast made a massive impression, being the highest grossing film so far this year in America.

So, is it for the money?

I asked the big question on the world wide web, love or hate them? And here are some of the responses:

Steven John Park said that remakes “show lack of originality.” He continued saying that they are “a direct insult to the original writer, directors and actors as if to say, ‘I can do it better’. Nothing but a cash grab.”

Joe Cartwright seemed to agree with them being cash driven, saying: “I think most films that are remade are done for money. Why mess with something that was class back in the day that people have fond memories of?”

With Disney aside, it seems apparent that other remakes haven’t been as popular with the likes of Godzilla in 2014, taken on by the famous disaster movie director Roland Emmerich, only just covering its production budget costs within the US. Another example of a box office bum is with the recent 2017 rehash of The Mummy. A typical Tom Cruise action packed film that we’ve seen him in over and over again. We already did it three times over with Brendan Fraser, it seems a remake wasn’t needed.

Others chipping in on the debate decided to throw in a few of their personal dislikes with Luke Dunmore giving his opinion on the seemingly ever reoccurring Spider-Man reboots: “The Amazing Spider-Man was only a few years after the original, and didn’t improve on it.”

However, this particular issue opens up a whole new can of worms. Sure, The Amazing Spider-Man was an outright remake, probably to the disappointment of Tobey Maguire, was he not amazing too? Jokes aside, the added special effects probably made for an overall better viewing experience, but then we were introduced to a third reboot with Spiderman Homecoming. This is where it gets tricky. With the Marvel cinematic universe getting bigger, and seeing more of the comic book characters coming together to fight evil in The Avengers, there was one character the fans were missing – Spiderman. With companies owning certain character rights he was excluded from other Marvel films such as the first Avengers, and its sequel. But, with a few conversations and deals made, he soon made an appearance in Captain America Civil War and will do in future story arcs to come, much to the fans delight. But, that doesn’t mean they necessarily wanted another remake, or that it warranted one.

This points at the other issue that many big blockbusters, Marvel being one example, are again adaptations. The same can be said with the rising popularity of book to film adaptations. Has originality truly gone, and we are just hearing stories we already know but in different formats?

On a positive spin, and in defence of remakes, there are many films out there that have benefitted from being brought back to the big screen again.

Luke Dumore spoke of how he didn’t mind remakes when special effects and CGI are taken into consideration: “I think that remaking old films that didn’t have the effects to do it justice first time is fine.”

Chris Deaton agreed with this saying: “modern technology can improve the special effects if they were needed.”

And, this has seemed to be the case with the film Mad Max Fury Road which was released back in 2015. With a slightly different take on the story, and the special effects making way for a much more powerful cinematic experience. It seems the advancement of technology contributed to the positive reception of the film.

Daniel Green also commented in defence of remakes: “remakes can work if the original film/source material is flawed enough to warrant a refresh. A good concept ruined by limitations of the time, or the wrong director/writer can be fixed with a new take.”

Sean O’Donnell, replied with a similar stance to Daniel saying: “an original film is a joy to behold if it’s done well, but I’d much rather watch a well-made remake of a film than a rubbish original.”

This can be said for the recent horror It, which was released earlier this year. With a tremendous $1 billion worldwide box office hit, and positive reviews from Stephen King himself, this take on the murderous clown Pennywise seemed to be more popular than its original.

Another film and remake just hitting cinemas is The Murder on the Orient Express, and this is already receiving good reviews from critics such as BBC’s Mark Kermode. However, the director Kenneth Branagh, who also stars in the film is already the king of Shakespearean adaptations, so it seems apt that he would do this one justice too.

However, if you’re still not sure about watching remakes, and would prefer to see more original content then take advice from Nathan Paul Kennedy, who added in his input to the debate. He argues that “tastes, attitudes and fashions change over time, and so most remakes lose something in translation.” He feels that “the best way for audiences to get new material is to avoid remakes and pay to go see original stories.” One way to do this would be to visit your local independent cinema, rather than the big chains as they are more likely to show smaller films from smaller companies with up and coming new directors and writers, and therefore new stories.

Whatever your decision on remakes, I believe Paul Ward rounds it off nicely with his contribution: “I’m all for it because it’s interesting to see a recent interpretation of a story. So, whatever anybody thinks, there’s still something to be enjoyed by everyone out there.”

That’s a good note to leave it on!

I Loved San Junipero, But Is Lesbians AND Complex Sci-fi Too Much To Ask?

By Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

We all rejoiced recently when Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” aka The Gay Episode™, was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. The episode had two gorgeous stars, plenty of We Can’t Be Together angst, and a soundtrack featuring INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” The Bangles’s “Walk Like An Egyptian,” and of course, Belinda Carlyle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.”

Despite the fiery 80s playlist, though, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the finer points of this episode. I feel like in most episodes of Black Mirror, the writers are clearly not thinking as big as they could be in terms of the wider implications of the world they’re creating, and “San Junipero” is no exception—though this one disappoints me more than the others, since I would obviously want The Gay Episode™ to be the best.

The concept of uploading human minds into computers has been around the transhumanism block more than a few times, so it’s been able to mature like a fine wine into a complex cluster of questions—and even a few answers. It’s actually a particular interest of mine, since I’ve always been interested in ways to shed my corporeal form in order to exist as a being of pure information. I personally can’t wait to be uploaded, though I would choose a VR environment set on the East Coast, or better yet, in the Midwest.

In light of these facts about me, it may not surprise you that I was saddened by the lack of scope I saw in the world the Black Mirror team created in “San Junipero.”

My main problem with “San Junipero,” and most pop cultural attempts at transhumanism, is this: when Kelly is explaining why she doesn’t want to live in San Junipero after she dies, she says she doesn’t want to be like the “locals,” who do nothing but hang out at the same three bars, hooking up with each other forever to numb the boredom of immortality. It makes sense—I, too, would rather die than do that.

Constant partying and sex, with short breaks for the fight club at the Quagmire, are a fine way to spend the first week or so of immortality, but as Kelly observes, they would get old pretty quickly. Kelly’s reasoning begs the question, though: is there no one in San Junipero doing anything other than that?

Though I mean, it’s not like there’s very much to do with eternal life inside a computer where you can simulate doing literally anything. It’s not like you’d have to be massively boring not to be able to imagine a better way to spend that existence than going clubbing every night. Right?!?!

Re: other things you could do in San Junipero—there’s of course the nerdy things like learning every language, contemplating the Big Questions of existence, or working your way through even a fraction of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, art, and literature. But then there’s also scaling Everest, visiting the moon, the largest-scale game of hide and seek ever played, et cetera. 

Remember Runescape? There was more to do in Runescape, than there is to do in San Junipero! Party town, indeed!

Kelly isn’t realizing that instead of spending her afterlife at the Quagmire, she could go hang out in her sweet beach house and figure out something she’d rather do. Instead of finding possibilities for a glorious post-mortality future, the people of San Junipero spend their eternities literally living in the past—and that’s so sad. What a shocking lack of imagination, for the creators of Black Mirror to try to complicate the idea of immortality just by making the post-death activities too limited to make it enticing.

As those who have seen the episode know, the conflict is eventually resolved, and Kelly and Yorkie get married in San Junipero. This actually is a step up from most stories like this that I’ve seen, where the protagonist would usually accept death—for the same reasons Kelly outlines about growing bored, and about death being more natural than immortality.

But even though the episode is ultimately pro-uploading, the fact remains that the writers of Black Mirror couldn’t think of a more interesting conflict for Kelly than: “Hmmm, do I hang out forever in paradise with my beautiful girlfriend, or do I die?” 

There’s so much potential for exploration in stories about what humans would do with eternal life, but we’re holding ourselves back from getting really interesting when we settle for conflicts that boil down to “immortality is unnatural” or “immortality wouldn’t actually be better than dying.” I mean, this is science fiction; is anyone interested in limiting ourselves strictly to what’s natural?? 

And it’s not just that being “natural” is less fun. Consider: Yorkie has been bedbound since she was 21. San Junipero is her first opportunity to have a normal life in forty years. But guess what? She only gets five hours a week in San Junipero, because it’s not natural for people to spend more time than that in virtual reality, and sometimes they get too attached to a virtual world where they get to live a full life. Are you going to tell Yorkie it would be better for her to just die, when in this life she never actually got to live?

You know what some people think is natural? Heterosexuality, and nothing else. Dying from polio and tuberculosis was also considered natural at one point, as was witch-burning. We’ve mostly moved past these things, because technology and ideology have progressed.

Human history is littered with the bones of things we used to think were inescapable. For a transhumanist, death is in the queue to join these things. It only takes a tiny shift in your conception of what’s possible to put death in the same category as tuberculosis. And if we put taxes in that category too, we might even be able to escape capitalism.

If you’re curious, you might be asking: what could have been a better way to explore the possibilities of San Junipero?

Well: neurologists tell us that the structures of our brains have a huge impact on how we think. An uploaded consciousness wouldn’t have an amygdala to register danger, or a pituitary gland to flood their system with adrenaline—so how would that consciousness experience fear?

Likewise, how does memory work differently when instead of long-term and short-term memory, everything is stored like documents on a hard drive? How would someone fall in love differently if they had 1s and 0s in place of oxytocin and dopamine?

Maybe each person in San Junipero has a simulated brain to replicate those brain functions, like an emulator program that lets you play video games from the 90s on your Macbook. Or maybe people in San Junipero have made their first steps of departure from what it used to mean to be human. Don’t you want to see that, instead of hear about what Kelly’s husband thought about San Junipero, when he never even tried it?!?!

Also, why are the people of San Junipero limited to human avatars? Do they spend any time just hanging out without physical forms? And how does that change how we experience consciousness?

What about mods and plug-ins developed for the human mind? If you lived in San Junipero, you might be able to add on extensions to your consciousness, so you could customize yourself into exactly the kind of being you wanted to be—or you could try on different modes of existence like you used to try on clothes at the mall back when you were made of carbon and meat.

Oh, or: Yorkie and Kelly could have merged consciousnesses and become a digital lesbian hive mind. Put that in your “phones are bad” show and smoke it.

Harvey Weinstein

By Susan England

Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French writer once said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  I keep returning to this quote when thinking of alleged serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.

According to multiple accounts, Weinstein was allowed to get away with disgusting and degrading behaviour for years because he was rich and powerful.  Weinstein’s behaviour appears to have long been an open secret in Hollywood, dutifully guarded by a well-paid army of protectors.  Women who were brave enough to come forward found themselves smeared in the press or blacklisted.  When hush money was paid, it appears to have been shrouded in non-disclosure agreements which only serve to protect the powerful from further allegations rather than the women who were abused.

Each day brings further allegations against Weinstein himself and against other men in powerful positions.  At the moment it seems Harvey Weinstein’s empire is crumbling about him with no chance of redemption.  But what are the chances he will ever do any hard jail time?  Historical allegations of sexual misconduct are notoriously hard to prosecute.  Possibly realising criminal proceedings are unlikely to be successful, some women are already pursuing Weinstein and his organisation in personal lawsuits.  No doubt, his well-assembled army has already tucked away enough funds to assure Mr. Weinstein will suffer no true financial hardship.

Politicians have lined up to donate the amount received from Weinstein in political donations to women’s charities; celebrities have lined up to condemn him and stand by the brave women who have recently come forward, yet the words of British 18th century statesmen Edmund Burke still ring true.  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Serious soul searching should take place within each and every person who allowed the alleged sexual assaults to continue and smeared the courageous women who came forward years ago.  However, I have doubts such soul searching will ever take place.

Perhaps as our gender continues to hammer away at that glass ceiling, more women will gain positions of power in the film industry and other male-dominated fields, making such abuse less likely.  The young optimist inside me sincerely hopes such a time will come to pass.  Yet, the weary woman worn down by life’s endless setbacks has serious doubts.