Saturday, February 28, 2015

O Illinois: Reflections on Postcards in Film

O Illinois

I’m sending you a Hollywood postcard

a Collateral[1] lush island visor

a Dark City[2] Shell Beach nightmare

a six-year-old’s walk
on packed sand

bending for green sea glass

stretching toward gorged pelicans

climbing a palmetto lined sea wall
when the sun blisters.

In a neighbor’s yard
dogs race around a collapsed pool.

A boxer jumps a fence

landing in soft snow.

[1] Collateral. Dir. Michael Mann. Perf. Tom Cruise, Jamie Fox. Paramount, 2004. DVD.
[2] Dark City. Dir. Alex Proyas. Perf. Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly. New Line Cinema, 1998. DVD.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Blood Diner (1987) and the Cannibal: When Women’s Bodies Fight Back

Blood Diner  (1987) and the Cannibal: When Women’s Bodies Fight Back

            Director Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner (1987) integrates the supernatural into at least partial eco-feminist approaches to cannibalism. Blood Diner plays homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s B-horror Blood Feast (1963), transferring its tale of an Egyptian caterer combining body parts to resurrect a dormant Egyptian goddess to a late 1980s vegetarian restaurant. As an exploitation movie, Caryn James of The New York Times calls it “celluloid swill.” Blood Diner at its best is “bloody good fun,” according to Clint Morris of Film Threat, but at its worst, as Ken Hanke of the newspaper Mountain Xpress, suggests, the film is an “intentionally funny thriller [that] isn't as funny as the straight films it mocks.” Despite mixed reviews, Blood Diner reverses representations of Wendigo/wetiko, exploring female bodies and the landscapes they are said to represent from an ecofeminist perspective. In Blood Diner women successfully defeat their oppressors within the limited context of the film. 

In Blood Diner, Michael (Rick Burks) and George (Carl Crew) follow their Uncle Anwar’s (Drew Godderis) direction and construct what they call a perfect female body out of women’s body parts to host the spirit of a decadent ancient Egyptian goddess, Shitar. Their murdered victims become fodder for customers in their so-called vegetarian restaurant, providing humorous scenes of vegetarians inadvertently ingesting human flesh. Eventually, two inept but persistent detectives Sheba Jackson (LaNette La France) and Mark Shepherd (Roger Dauer), discover the boys’ plan to resurrect Shitar and learn more about her Lumerian Cult from an archeologist who explains how the gruesome goddess entices followers to participate in a literal blood feast. 

Although Michael and George successfully construct their goddess and bring her back to life with a ritual Uncle Anwar provides, their plan fails when a newly arisen Shitar feeds on George instead of the female virgin Connie (Lisa Elaina) they have provided her. Detective Shepherd shoots Michael, freeing Connie and angering George, who yells “You killed my brother!” But Detective Jackson kicks George into a hungry Shitar’s fanged stomach, and she eats his head. With shots of electric low-budget effects, Shitar seems to explode in a blast, seemingly destroying her and the brothers who created her. The remains of the dead line the floor and stage in the club. When one wakes up, a police officer shoots her. But in a final scene, a woman in red walks away, and a blonde guy in a convertible picks her up. It is Shitar transformed. The man tells her, “You look hot, bothered, and horny.” Shitar smiles, revealing her fanged teeth, doo-wop music accompanies their drive away, and the film ends. 

Blood Diner may construct women as monsters rather than victims, especially, as Barbara Creed argues in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, “in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions,” but the monstrous actions of Shitar are produced by male “intruders” who may, as Jack D. Forbes suggests, be the real cannibals in these films. As ecofeminist Jytte Nhanenge argues, “there is an interconnection between the domination of women and poor people, and the domination of nature” (xxvii). Creed asserts that what she calls the monstrous-feminine can “provide us with a means of understanding the dark side of the patriarchal unconscious” (166). Perhaps it can also blur boundaries between male and female, and between culture and nature, offering a more sane approach to the frontiers of land and body that rejects the wetiko disease. Forbes argues
the wetiko psychosis is a sickness of the spirit that takes people down an ugly path with no heart.They may kill, but they are not warriors …. Above all, the wetiko disease turns such into werewolves and vampires, creatures of the European’s nightmare world, and creatures of the wetiko’s reality (188). 

Instead, Forbes argues, we can choose to follow “a good path, a path of beauty” (189) that encourages love for the earth, “more respect for life, more respect for the living, more respect for all forms of life,” (178), including the nonhuman. Blood Diner illustrates the negative consequences of a pastoral myth that constructs frontiers of both the natural world and of women’s bodies as nurturing mothers or seductive and promiscuous whores. It may also demonstrate the need for “a partnership ethic” like that historian Carolyn Merchant describes, in which “the needs of both humans and nonhumans would be dynamically balanced” (206). Despite its flaws, the Blood Diner leaves viewers with more complex visions of cannibalism, a gendered disease with multiple sources but only one cure.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chato's Land (1972) and Environmental Adaptation


Western films in which American Indian characters are highlighted rest on this idea of adapting horrific environments into homes, on what we call narratives of environmental adaptation. Although westerns with American Indians at the center or on their edges do construct American Indians as either savage or noble “others,” the films also (and most importantly for us) demonstrate how effectively American Indians have adapted, and adapted to, what white settlers see as an environmental “hell” or something worse. As the Fort Lowell commander Major Cartwright (Douglass Watson) puts it in Ulzana’s Raid (1972),

“You know what General Sheridan said of this country, lieutenant? ... If he owned hell and Arizona, he’d live in hell and rent out Arizona.”

In a move toward a more sustainable view of prairie and desert ecosystems, American Indians in a variety of western films adapt a seemingly lifeless environment into a place they can call home. This narrative of environmental adaptation continues even into contemporary western films set on and near reservation lands and gains particular force in Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals (1998).  Pardon Chato’s (Charles Bronson) perspective in Chato’s Land (1972) helps illustrate the parameters and repercussions of such environmental adaptation. The film highlights the Apache worldview from a white perspective but provides insight into how Chato, a half Apache mestizo, survives in what seems like uninhabitable land. According to Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), when Chato runs from the captain because he killed a U.S. marshal in self-defense, he “picks his ground” carefully. Unlike white soldiers, Chato has adapted to this inhospitable land and can use it to his advantage in a fight. The captain explains the wisdom of Chato’s choice to run through Indian Territory: 

To you this is so much bad land—rock, scrub, desert and then more rock, a hard land that the sun has sucked all the good out of. You can’t farm it, and you can’t carve it out and call it your own… so you damn it to hell. And it all looks the same. That is our way. To the breed now, it’s his land. He don’t expect it to give him much, and he don’t force it none. And to him it’s almost human—a livin’ active thing. And it will make him a good place to make his fight against us.

This narrative of environmental adaptation evolves in U.S. western films with American Indians at their center, from the early valorization of American Indian worldviews, through the vilification of the savage Indian in the 1940s and ’50s, back to a more revisionist, if condescending, look at American Indian perspectives from the 1950s and 60s through the 1990s that makes way for the Native-American-centered narratives to come. A review of Smoke Signals in Rolling Stone asserts, “When it comes to American Indians, Hollywood either trades in Injun stereotypes or dances with Disney” (“Smoke Signals” Review).

Westerns as a genre tend to focus on Plains Indian tribes, the nomadic tribes in the plains settlers crossed to reach the West, with little distinction between tribes. But the films also respond to film history, a history that coincides with political and cultural history of both Hollywood and the United States as a whole. According to Simmon, “Indians may well have entered American film for the reason they came into the European tradition as a whole: Searching for stories to set in the landscape, pioneer filmmakers stumbled upon ‘Indians,’ the presumed men of nature” (4). Set in Eastern lush forests instead of desert plains, the narratives of these early silent westerns “are set entirely within tribal communities or feature a ‘noble redskin’ as guide or savior to the white hero” (4).

By 1914, however, Simmon asserts, American Indian actors and sympathetic narratives were no longer prominent in westerns at least partly because the “U. S. Army began planning, with some innocence, for America’s entry into World War I by requisitioning horses” (80). According to Simmon, “The subsequent history of Indian images in silent-era Hollywood becomes a story with two paths—one about war, the other about love—neither leading anywhere except Indian death” (81).  In spite of Simmon’s contention, at least a few westerns highlighting American Indian characters and narratives present a more sympathetic view of a possible comic evolutionary narrative, a narrative of environmental adaptation that reveals the ineffectiveness of a tragic evolutionary path and the intruder pioneers who seek destruction rather than adaptation. Chato’s Land  may attempt such a journey.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Love Serenade (1996): Ecofeminist Myth-making or Hetero-normative Wish

Love Serenade (1996): Ecofeminist Myth-making or Hetero-normative Wish

Set in Sunray, a backwater town on Australia's Murray River, there's little to do but fish or listen to the local radio station, Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade infuses Magical Realism to invoke what could be seen as an ecofeminist message. Although the story seems to focus primarily on the drive for romance and marriage in a patriarchal community, the fishing images and references suggest something more: a literal connection between humans and nature that merges Sunray with the river at its edge. 

On one level, the narrative of Love Serenade seems to perpetuate a patriarchal status quo. This normative plot’s conflicts begin when D.J. Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov) arrives from the hustle of Brisbane to run the small town radio station, where he plays 1960s and 70s love songs from Barry White and Glen Campbell that reinforce his ideology. Although he is in his mid-40s, detached, thrice divorced, and hatchet faced, two sisters living next door find him irresistible: Dimity (Miranda Otto) is an awkward twenty year-old, who works in a Chinese restaurant with few patrons and nudist owner Albert Lee (John Alansu). Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith) is a perky hairdresser with a hope chest who invents a happy future with Sherry based on little but his arrival. First Dimity then Vicki-Ann spend the night with Sherry, one concluding he's her boy friend, the other her fiancé until both discover their mistake.

On another level, however, the film explores masculinity through an ecofeminist lens that draws on fish and fishing as metaphor. From this perspective the narrative reverses stereotypical alliances between women and nature, suggesting that at least one man’s “nature” aligns him more with the Marlin on his living room wall than with the “human” characters represented by Dimity, Vicki-Ann, and Albert Lee. 

To demonstrate this focus, the opening fishing scene compares the sport to the angling associated with romantic relationships. After close-ups of carp under water latching onto a hook, Dimity and Vicki-Ann reel it in, stringing it up with a comment, “some fish mate for life.” To amplify the angling metaphor, Vicki-Ann even offers the carp to Sherry, plying him with food for affection. His claim that he never eats seafood, however, takes the metaphor further, moving it into the realm of Magical Realism in which Sherry logically grows gills as he manifests the traits he attributes to the Marlin on his wall. 

Multiple scenes hint at Sherry’s transformation. Although he won’t eat them, he questions Dimity and Albert Lee repeatedly about the freshness of the restaurant’s prawns. To lure in Dimity, he asks her if she would like to see his fish, the giant stuffed Marlin on his wall. To illustrate his view of love, Sherry points to the Marlin, telling Dimity he is like the Marlin. For Dimity the fish is dead. For Sherry it’s free, unlike a pet fish in a tank or a lover in a committed relationship. Sherry even quotes the cliché, “to love something, set it free.”

The alliance between the hyper-masculine Sherry and the Marlin grows stronger when Sherry seduces Vicki-Ann. Dimity begins to notice gills on Sherry’s neck that foam when he gargles. Later Dimity sits in Sherry’s living room while Sherry and Vicki-Ann “mate” and watches the Marlin from the couch. The Marlin jumps from the wall, crashing to the floor and foreshadowing Sherry’s future fate. Sherry rejects both Dimity and Vicki-Ann and meets a violent death in a fall from a grain silo, but the film ends not on shore but on the river, where, after the sisters drop him into the water, Sherry completely transforms into the fish he emulates. The sisters scream as he swims away, trailing an “I wuv you” balloon behind him. In Love Serenade, Shirley Barrett complicates the romantic revenge plot by exploring it beside and in the Murray River. It’s still unclear, however, whether that choice perpetuates patriarchy or (re)creates an ecofeminist myth.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reflections on Bird People (2014) and The Bird People In China (1998)

Doodle Poll (Calendar View)

She regrets

she’s unable to meet today.


she looked out over a low creek

turning into a heron

snaking between sumacs,

one of the bird people

gliding with starched cotton wings

thinking only

“I’m hungry”

as she dived.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Monstrous Trees and Ecology: Targeting Human Threats in the Horror Film

Monstrous Trees and Ecology: Targeting Human Threats in the Horror Film

Explorations of how trees transform into “monsters” seeking revenge against the human world that exploits them highlight the power of plant horror. In films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), trees have fought back against humans, becoming “monstrous nature.” In The Wizard of Oz, trees become animated when their apples are stolen (and a wicked witch intervenes), hurling them violently back at Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her friends. And in the second Lord of the Rings film, trees called Ents seek vengeance against Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army when Ent leader Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies) discovers that Saruman has decimated a section of Fangorn Forest to build his iron forges. Although these scenes are brief, they each draw on ecological approaches to the revenge plot.

As a demonstration of the power of environmental tree horror, four feature films with tree horror at their center underscore contemporary ecological problems: Severed (2005), The Ruins (2008), Splinter (2008), and The Happening (2008). In these films, trees might fight back against their human oppressors in the fantastic context of horror and science fiction. But the messages they convey also connect explicitly with current environmental disasters. By drawing on contemporary environmental issues, all of these films act as warnings against the possible repercussions of environmental degradation in the Anthropocene Age.

In Severed, genetic testing in a logging camp meant to accelerate tree growth and increase timber output also proves deadly to humans when splinters from GMO logs transform humans into zombies who feed on other loggers. Although the “outbreak” seems isolated, its presence in the film serves as a warning against both genetic modification and over-logging of forests, environmental disasters condemned in recent news articles. The film broaches, for example, the May 2014 “March Against Monsanto” and the May 2014 Greenpeace protests against illegal logging in the Amazon. With its focus on plant revenge against trespassers, The Ruins also cautions against infiltrating rainforests, this time by offering a revenge plot in which forest vines trap and kill American tourists trespassing on sacred Mayan land.  In Splinter, “splinters” like those in Severed parasitically invade human carriers and turn them into monsters, a monstrous result that underpins the possible consequences of climate change—the emergence and evolution of deadly parasites. 

The Happening takes such cautionary tales even further, explicitly connecting the behavior of trees to humanity’s contribution to the disappearance of bees through Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition explored in documentaries such as The Vanishing of the Bees (2009). Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) underlines this connection early in the film during a class discussion prompted by a quote from Einstein scrawled on the blackboard: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” The film takes this premise further, asking what if a monstrous nature fought back? In The Happening, the answer comes almost immediately after the bee: as if reacting to our annihilation of the natural world, something from the trees in Central Park causes men and women to kill themselves.

These juxtaposed scenes suggest humans have become a threat and must be defeated. As a high school principal (Alan Ruck) explains,
Alright, there appears to be an event happening. Central Park was just hit by what seems to be a terrorist attack. They're not clear on the scale yet. It's some kind of airborne chemical toxin that's been released in and around the park. They said to watch for warning signs. The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The third stage … is fatal.
According to an unnamed nursery owner (Frank Collison), “plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants when attacked by heliothis caterpillars will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don't know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly.” When Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) asks, “Which species is doing it, if you think it's true,” the nursery owner designates trees as the source of the human purge, explaining, “plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants. Trees can communicate with bushes, and bushes with grass, and everything in between.” In The Happening, trees and the plants with which they communicate transform into monstrous nature to attack the human species seemingly bent on their destruction.  

Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening demonstrate the power of plant horror. In these films, the monstrous acts of trees serve as a powerful critique of humanity’s contemporary environmental abuses. They also provide a space in which to explore the complexities of a monstrous nature humans both create and embody. According to a February 2015 National Geographic article, we have entered the Anthropocene, an epic “defined by our own massive impact on the planet” (Kolbert). Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening highlight this environmental horror. The real monster is us.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Louisiana Story and Separation Between Humans and the Natural World

Louisiana Story and Separation Between Humans and the Natural World

The support for oil drilling and its benefits illustrated in Louisiana Story should come as no surprise because the Standard Oil Company financed the film. Despite clear evidence that oil drilling cannot leave the water and land around it untouched, the film and its reviewers assert the opposite, demonstrating through the experience of oil drillers and a Cajun boy that human and nonhuman nature can maintain separate existences and thrive. Instead of emphasizing the interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world, Louisiana Story suggests that to maintain the innocence of nature in the bayou, and of its more natural Cajun inhabitants, a humanity more aligned with culture and technology must leave wild nature behind, entering it only briefly and with caution to avoid an indelible affect. Two myths are perpetuated by the film, then: the myth that oil drilling can leave a natural setting untouched, and the myth that humans are somehow separate from nature rather than interconnected with it. 

Louisiana Story perpetuates these two myths through both its aesthetic and its narrative. Close-ups of a pristine bayou open Louisiana Story. Flowers, an alligator, and a heron on an evergreen tree emphasize the film’s naturalistic setting. A lone boy poles through weeping cypress trees in a small boat. We see the bayou from his point of view, including water below him. A narrator describes the scene, even mentioning werewolves to set the mythic tone of this innocent scene. The boy wears salt on his waist and something inside his shirt to protect him from all that bubbles, we are told and smiles at a raccoon in a tree, connecting him to both natural and supernatural elements. A snake, gators, and grasses blowing in the wind continue the scene.

When the boy shoots at an animal, and the pristine scene is disrupted, the conflicting element in the film is introduced: modernism in the shape of oil drilling in the bayou.  Other explosions take the gunshot’s place, then, as wheeled machinery drive up into the bayou. The machine looks like a tractor, a cultivator cutting a path through the grass. The boy floats away, demonstrating the separation between culture and nature the film perpetuates. The boy and his Cajun family represent an innocence that is untouched by civilization. When the boy heads home to his Cajun family, a family structure more in touch with the natural world is introduced. Their cabin sits beside the bayou and can only be accessed by boat. Inside the cabin, the boy’s father talks about “gators” in a Cajun accent to a lean cut younger man, reinforcing his connection to nature. The boy’s mother does offer coffee, a connection with culture, but the boy’s entrance by boat at his parent’s dock again highlights how isolated this family is from society. The blasting that continues, however, contrasts and conflicts with this innocent, more “natural” scene, highlighting the intervention on display. Modern culture has entered the pristine wilderness of the bayou and infiltrated the innocent Cajun family that is still tied to the natural world. To seal this connection, the oil drillers offer lease agreements to the boy’s father: “Can that thing really tell where oil is?” the older man asks, and signs his name to a contract. 

Evidence in the film, however, suggests that nature and culture can and must remain separated. The oilmen, representing culture, leave the rustic cabin in their speedboat. Later the boy and his raccoon, representing nature, watch the oilmen from their rowboat as the drillers prepare to build their rig and platform. The boy fishes while Cajuns hunt along a pristine shore, further connecting them to the natural world. We get a view of homes on the shore from a houseboat, and a shore view of the motorboat and its wake. The boy and raccoon continue watching, and the wake of the motorboat throws him out of his boat, so he is literally connected with the natural world. But the boy seems fascinated with the elements of culture brought by the oilmen and watches a man survey the area and a tall rig rolling up the bayou to the spot the surveyor has indicated. The boy and his raccoon watch this modern scene from the safety of nature—the waters and fecund grasses of the bayou. They remain innocent, smiling as they observe without relinquishing their connection with the natural world.

The rig contrasts with the natural scene around it, maintaining its separation from the natural world. The technology of the rig and the oil drilling it represents become a beautiful and powerful opposition to the peaceful bayou. Steam surrounds the rig, and we hear the pumping sounds of the drill. Although the boy talks to a couple of oilmen and asks what they are doing, he does not board the rig when invited. Instead, he paddles away, reinforcing his separation, and watching from his boat as the long drill comes out of the well, so worn down, the drillers must replace it.  A sunset over the bayou further separates the mechanization of oil drilling from the natural scene, which the boy and his boat both envelop and represent.

The separation between culture and nature continues even after the boy boards the rig for a closer look. The film shows the whole process of preparing the drill before the boy goes on board to see for himself. The rig is loud as chains swing around pipes to tighten and loosen connections. We cannot hear the boy and oilman’s conversation but see them smile, suggesting a connection between them and, consequently, a connection between culture and nature beyond the economic vision of ecology supported by the film’s narrative. 

After this long segment demonstrating the process of oil drilling, however, the scene shifts back to the boy and his raccoon in the bayou and, in a long sequence, highlights a battle between elements of nature. The boy leaves his raccoon and examines eggs left by an alligator. When the gator comes back on shore, the boy and we see the ‘gator eggs hatch. The boy holds a baby gator until the mother gator roars, and the boy runs away. The raccoon is now loose and swims up on a log, but the gator is close behind. The boy searches for his pet and passes representatives of wild nature: a spider in a web, a rabbit, a skunk, singing birds, and a deer. When he sees the broken line on the boat and realizes the coon has escaped, he fears the gator has killed the coon. In a parallel to the boy’s fears, the gator devours a water bird, so the boy sets a gator trap to avenge his friend’s death. His attempts fail alone, however, but his father has been searching for him and helps him out of the water, telling him, “We’ll get him.”  Together they kill the alligator, it seems. Although we do not see the actual slaughter, we assume it occurs because father and son visit the oilrig and bring the gator’s skin to show the drillers on board, holding it up for them to admire from their rowboat.

This resolution of the battle between human and nonhuman nature is paralleled on the rig with a battle between humans and elements of culture when one of the oilmen, Tom, tests oil levels. Any connection between culture and nature ends once the oilmen test the oil and find it good. The lease money from the father’s contract buys groceries and a new pot for mom, and a new rifle for the boy, but the family members continue to speak Cajun without translation. Despite the relative prosperity the lease money brings to the family, the last two scenes from the film perpetuate the separation between nature and culture and suggest that human intervention—even oil drilling—can leave the natural world pure and untouched. In the first of these scenes, the boy sees his raccoon in the tree, complete with the rope collar around its neck, so boy and ‘coon are reunited and, consequently, the boy is reconnected with the natural world. In the second and last of these two scenes, the derrick leaves slowly, and oil is pumped through a pipeline under the bayou and hidden from the natural world.  The boy and his pet watch the process and wave goodbye to the rig, its oilmen and the culture they represent. Only a lone Christmas tree-like pole remains, and it is now more tree than derrick, a tangible claim in the film that human exploitation of nature’s resources can leave its pure innocence untouched.