Discussed in this post: 8 books (Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life; Radical Embodied Cognitive Science; Consider the Lobster; Sorcerer’s Screed; Angel Wings Splash Pattern; The Moviegoer; and American Gods) and 3 documentaries (O.J.: Made in America; Patience: After Sebald; and Fursonas).
[A few years back, I stopped doing my monthly book reviews. I’m going to try and get back into that as well as maybe doing some film and documentary reviews. Rather than doing formal reviews, I’m mostly going to use these texts or films as springboards for thought so I won’t always be providing very detailed analyses of whatever title happens to be under discussion. I’m sure google can lead to any number of more traditional reviews. Also, I’m happy to hear in the comments about what other people are reading or watching and enjoying!]
1. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
Jamaica is more than Bob Marley as the CIA knew full well in 1976 when the Rasta who sang against downpression and isms was shot. Although Papa Doc Duvalier was firmly established by violence and terror and money in Haiti, the Cuban revolution had succeeded against all odds. Granted, Che was already dead for nine years but his witness and words — ¡hasta la victoria siempre! — lived on. In the mid- to late twentieth century much of the Caribbean was in flux and it was hard to know where the cards would fall. Would the the people manage to shake off the yoke of colonial imperialism, foreign powers, and client rulers willing to betray their own people for personal profit, or would those powers triumph and beat the people down in order to maintain ever growing disparities between the rich and the poor?
[The following contains triggers due to its explicit discussion of sexual violence as represented in various texts.]
[Belle de Jour] is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best. That’s because it understands eroticism from the inside-out – understands how it exists not in sweat and skin but in imagination. ~ Roger Ebert
[I was] very exposed physically… I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to… There were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy. ~ Catherine Deneuve, Séverine in Belle de Jour
This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic. ~ Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Introduction: Engaging Representations
In the following reflection, I want to try to carefully think about female sexual desire as it is represented in two remarkably similar texts: Luis Buñuel’s award-winning 1967 film, Belle de Jour (BDJ), and E. L. James’ best-selling novel, Fifty Shades of Grey (FSG). I hope to be clear from the outset that what I am trying to think about are these representations of female sexual desire and not female sexual desire as it is experienced by any specific person. Consequently, the comments that follow are not at all intended to try and police female sexual desire as such – I do not think there is any basis whatsoever for me, a cis-gendered person who has gotten by just fine performing maleness, to say what it is or is not permissible for women (or others) to desire in sexual fantasies. The topic I am considering here are these representations of female sexual desire, how they were communicated, and how they have been received.
1. Down the Rabbit Hole
If you want to surprise yourself after you watch “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” ask this question: who is the protagonist in this story and who is the antagonist? In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? (And, yes, they are both guys.)
Once you ask this question you realize something surprising: the person you might otherwise imagine to be the bad guy — Flint Lockwood, who almost destroys the entire world — is actually the protagonist. He’s the fellow we’ve been rooting for. If that’s the case, who is the bad guy? The Mayor. Of course, we are groomed from the beginning to root for Flint and to dislike the Mayor — Flint has a backs story and we first meet him as a wide-and-starry-eyed child who is bullied by his peers but loved by his mother (who dies while he is young, leaving him with a gruff but loving father who doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with his boy). Unlike Flint, the Mayor has no back story — I didn’t even know that he had a name until I looked the movie up on IMDB.
Flint = good; Mayor = bad. Everything unfolds from this. And down the rabbit hole we go…
2. Friends and Enemies and You
Who or what is Flint Lockwood? Well, we know he is something of a dreamer and an inventor. He is a bit nerdy, sometimes a bit misguided, but always well-intentioned. After a number of failed efforts, he does something of great significance: he invents a machine that causes it to rain food, thereby revitalizing the economy of a town that was dying and creating access to a resource that was quite limited (previously, the folks in Flint’s town lived off of sardines). Food, of course, provides people with energy — Flint is an energy provider.
However, Flint’s method of resource extraction ends up producing some less-than-ideal results. The amount of waste produced is staggering and, although everyone ignores it (Flint invents a machine called “The OutOfSighter” to catapult the waste out of sight and out of mind), it piles up on the horizon and threatens to tumble down and annihilate the town. As if that’s not bad enough, the mass production of this resource also results in an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy the entire planet.
Does this story sound familiar to anybody? It should. Flint isn’t just any energy provider, he’s Big Oil.
So, if that’s who Flint is, who is the Mayor? Well, let’s look at the way he speaks about himself in the first behind the scenes shot we have of him:
This hellhole is too small for me, Brent. I wanna be big. I want people to look at me and say, “That is one big mayor.” And that’s why this has to work. It has to work. Otherwise, I’m just a tiny mayor of a tiny town full of tiny sardine-sucking knuckle-scrapers.
Of course, the mayor very quickly does become big… very big.
So the oil company is the good guy and the Mayor is the bad guy and the bad guy wants to be big… do I really need to explain this? The antagonist in this film is big government. Yes, you see, the problems arise because the government wants to exploit the kindly, good-hearted but somewhat naive energy producer in order to gain wealth and status. Flint just wants to make everybody’s lives better — the Mayor wants to be big. Because of this the Mayor pushes Flint to do things he would not do otherwise. Flint realizes that things are getting somewhat out of control and dangerous and wants to pull the plug — but the Mayor talks him out of it and then, when that fails, the Mayor breaks Flint’s machine to prevent him from pulling the plug. Then, when disaster strikes, the Mayor abandons the town to try and make his own escape at the expense of others. Big government is not your friend.
But there is another enemy lurking here, somebody else who is to blame for all of this. Who is this hidden enemy who also helps to drive the world to the brink of destruction? You. You see, if you weren’t demanding that the energy provider continually flood the market with more and more and more, everything would have been just fine. The energy provider was ever only trying to make you happy. After all, unlike the Mayor, Flint was never motivated by a desire for wealth, or power or status. Sure, he wanted to be loved by others (who doesn’t?) and maybe that blinded him a little, but isn’t that true of all of us?
3. Vindication and Salvation
All of this is beautifully explained in a speech that the police officer, Earl, makes to the townspeople when they are intent on lynching Flint because they blame him for the disaster. As they rock Flint’s car back and forth, Earl jumps in to restore order and says:
This mess we’re in is all our faults. Me, I didn’t even protect my own son. Look, I’m as mad at Flint as you are. In fact, when he gets out of that car, I’m gonna slap him in the face. I know Flint Lockwood made the food, but it was made-to-order. And now it’s time for all of us to pay the bill.
So, you see, BP, TransCanada, Keystone XL, Imperial Oil, none of them are to blame for any of this mess. We are. If the oil companies are guilty of anything it’s of trying too hard to make us happy and to be loved by us.
Notice, also, that it is a police officer making this speech in the movie. Earl is the representative of the rule of law in this film, and the law vindicates Flint. Sure, he may deserve a slap… but even that is barely enacted, and Earl quickly apologizes to Flint for slapping him (but, don’t worry, Flint is such a nice guy that he responds by saying, “That’s okay”!). So, really, the law punishes the energy provider more to placate the people than to serve justice (and, of course, out of love for the people, the energy provider goes along with it… just like good ol’ Tony Hayward who pretty much died for our sins).
Not only does the law vindicate Flint but it is right to do so — for Flint is the one who ends up saving everybody in the end. How does he do this? With further technological advances. Specifically, he invents a flying car that permits him to gain access to the machine in the sky that has gone haywire so that he can prevent a catastrophe.
That he uses a flying car is significant — aren’t flying cars the symbol of a future when technology has produced a wonderful world for us wherein anything is possible and all our problems have been solved? The solution, then, is not to abandon any of our technological advances but to trust in technology to miraculously save us from an impending disaster that appears to be unavoidable and catastrophic. If this also sounds like a familiar story it should — the oil companies have been saying the same thing to us for years about climate change.
4. Conclusion: Stop Worrying…
All told, the message here is this: any environmental catastrophe we are experiencing was produced by self-serving politicians and greedy consumers exploiting well-intentioned energy providers. The solution, then, is to not cast stones, except at big government, and wait for BP to save us, just like Flint saves the townspeople in the film.
So, really, if this is anything to go on (and anybody with children should break out in a sweat from 3:10-3:40, although the previous minutes provide the necessary context for that segment), by watching this movie I’ve been preparing my child to view the world in a certain way — a way that favours the narrative of the oil giants and a way that brackets out other narratives. This is how I’ve been teaching Charlie to stop worrying and love the bomb.
[Warning: this post contains spoilers. I hate to ruin a good movie for others, so I suggest you watch this movie first before reading what follows after the cut. Seriously. The movie was tons of fun. I pretty much never laugh out loud when I watch movies but I did on multiple occasions with this one. Also, while a lot of clever things happened in this movie in relation to other horror films, and common tropes from the genre, I won’t be touching on that in this commentary. Plenty of other folks have done that already. However, I haven’t found this particular political reading of the film elsewhere — which is not to say that it isn’t already out there! — so that’s going to be my focus.]
I’m going to start by giving everything away. This is your last chance to walk away and watch the movie. Take it. Okay, now that you’ve done that, here we go: