Spirited Away is the best coming of age movie.
[By request: here is the original paper I wrote for my BA class “Film Violence and Voyeurism”, which I later presented at the 2013 ACTC English Majors’ Conference, and which I used as the basis for my first YouTube video “Understanding Psycho: The Uncanny”.]
One of the more curious things about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is its lack of a single protagonist to carry the bulk of the narrative. About a third of the way into the film the plot suddenly switches its focus from Marion—who (to the shock of everyone who assumed she was the protagonist) is brutally murdered in Hitchcock’s most famous sequence—to a murder investigation involving Norman, “Mother”, Marion’s lover Sam, and her sister Lila. Marion’s murder may be necessary to generate the investigation, but that doesn’t explain why Hitchcock dedicates more than forty minutes of his 110-minute film to what would, in the context of a straightforward whodunit, be merely a backstory. However, Marion’s story is not a red herring; it is just as important as Norman’s, and only by looking at the two together, as halves of a whole, does one begin to understand the importance of their relationship. In “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large”, Slavoj Žižek argues for a reading where Norman serves as Marion’s uncanny double:
[He is] nothing but her mirror-negative… Marion’s world is the world of contemporary American everyday life, whereas Norman’s world is its nocturnal reverse… The relationship between these two worlds… is that of the two surfaces of the Moebius band: if we progress far enough on one surface, all of a sudden we find ourselves on its reverse. (227)
To understand Psycho, the film must be seen not as two separate narratives, but as a Moebius strip. By examining parallels between the two, it becomes clear that, like day and night, Marion and Norman’s stories are not separate but complimentary and cyclical.
[Note: You guys said you were interested, so here goes! This started as a paper I wrote for an MA class called ‘Exploitation Cinema’ where I placed the NBC show Hannibal in a wider context of cannibalism in film. It’s a little rough, since I’ve cut it down by about 2,000 words and edited it to make it a little more accessible.]
In what is now an iconic scene from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter taunts FBI trainee Clarice Starling by telling her about a census taker he once killed. ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’, he says, sucking in a hissing breath as though relishing the taste that lingers in his memory. Lecter and his psychiatrist enthrall Clarice—and, by extension, the audience—with verbal reconstructions of his murders, lingering on the cannibal’s perverse sensual enjoyment. Yet while the early Lecter films show only titillating glimpses of the killer’s ‘art’, the camera in the NBC serial Hannibal (2013 –) lingers with an almost detached fascination on the artist’s corpse-tableaus and haut-cuisine dishes, as though tempting the audience with their grim beauty. Instead of titillating us with tales of gore, Hannibal’s Hannibal dismembers and prepares each corpse in front of our eyes, holding the finished plate under our noses as though to say, ‘There, doesn’t that look good?’ Lecter’s pleasure is no longer a sign of incomprehensible monstrosity; it has become our pleasure as well.
Where does this perverse allegiance between audience and killer come from? The cannibal figure in fiction has evolved significantly over time. In Cannibalism in Literature and Film, Jennifer Brown argues that cannibalism is common in fiction not because it has been much practiced in reality (anthropological evidence shows incidents of cannibalism are actually very rare) but rather because it is an almost universal taboo, thus serving as an easy indicator of threatening and encroaching Otherness. The view of the cannibal is that of dangerously ambiguous figure, one who crosses or disregards the essential dividing line that separate the human body (in most cultures considered sacred, superior, or inviolate) from animal bodies. Human consumption of human flesh upsets what Brown calls ‘the most fundamental boundary between the “self and else”’ (7).
Once in college I mentioned to my best friend, not without some embarrassment, that I used to read a lot of fantasy novels as a child. ‘Oh, I hated fantasy novels,’ she groaned. ‘They’re just pure escapism.’ This comment intrigued rather than offended me. What did she mean by ‘pure escapism’, and why was this a bad thing?
To my friend’s credit, she considered the question seriously. Well, she explained, the way she saw it, ‘escapist’ literature allowed the reader/viewer/protagonist to escape their problems, ‘escape’ here meaning ‘to run away from’ as opposed to ‘facing’ or ‘(re)solving’, which is hardly a mature or healthy coping mechanism for children to learn. I thought I understood what she meant. In the standard kid’s fantasy formula, the protagonist/reader-avatar is typically a child who feels out of place, whose relationship with their family (if they have one) is characterized by conflict or neglect, who is friendless or bullied by their peers, and who generally feels marginalized and ignored. Then, an intervention: they find a magic door into another realm where they are actually a long-lost monarch or a prophetic hero. Literal escapism.
What’s happening here is that the original problem—the problem at the outset of the story—is not directly addressed. Instead, circumstances change to reframe the problem so that it’s longer a problem. Often even the protagonist’s flaws and weaknesses become recast as strengths, so ‘spacey-ness’ and ‘weirdness’ become magical aptitude, stubbornness becomes courage in the face of danger, isolation becomes a sign of superiority or self-reliance, and so on. The result is that a person who cannot meet the demands of their environment is moved by the plot into one in which they are already equipped to succeed. Hence, escapism.
This, of course, is a massive oversimplification (not to mention a failure to address the psychological benefits of such stories for children in unhealthy environments). But take it as the introduction to my main point: that this kind of plotline, while we may call it ‘fantasy’ or ‘escapism’ is not necessarily specific to the fantasy genre. In fact, this story, wherein the character trait or handicap that sets the protagonist apart becomes the solution to their problem and/or evidence that they were Special All Along, can be found in almost every genre, including adult genres, with varying degrees of sophistication.
So that being said, let’s look at Die Hard.
A friend showed me this movie for the first time fairly recently, and being something of a killjoy (Is it really being a killjoy if I enjoy doing it, though? Discuss.), I asked my friend why the hell John ‘Endangering Civilians For Kicks’ McLane chose to dramatically escalate a terrorist attack instead of simply allowing Gruber and his thugs to take the money and go. Surely, I argued, compliance and negotiation are the only safe, ethical responses to a hostage situation where corporate money is stacked against human life. My friend very reasonably pointed out that a) Proper Negotiation Procedures isn’t nearly as good a movie title as Die Hard and that b) the villains, unbeknownst to our hero, had secretly planned to kill the hostages all along, so John McLane had really been right to resort to violence in the first place.
Let’s unpack that.
Die Hard and all its glorious moments of suspended disbelief make a lot more sense if we read it as escapism; that is, if we read the hostage situation at Nakatomi Plaza not as its own driving conflict, but as the solution to a different problem. This is the relationship between John McLane and his estranged wife Holly, who is, of course, among the hostages. In an early scene with his driver Argyle (no scene in a well-crafted film is unnecessary, and this scene is very necessary), we find out that Holly left New York to pursue a career opportunity without McLane’s blessing or support. He gives a nobly masculine reason for staying behind (‘I got a backlog of New York scumbags I’m still trying to put behind bars.’), which Argyle shrewdly interprets: ‘You thought she wasn’t gonna make it out here and she’d come crawling back to you, right?’ Replies McLane, ‘You’re very fast, Argyle.’
John McLane’s problem at the outset of the film can be summed up fairly simply: he suffers from a textbook case of Toxic Masculinity. He sees male-female relationships as a zero-sum competition (feeling threatened and emasculated by his wife’s success and the fact that she uses her own last name), he can’t communicate openly with women (even his ultimate heartfelt confession is to a comrade-in-arms, not his wife), and he can’t show emotion apart from anger or admit when he is wrong or in need of help. His explanation for staying in New York suggests that he prioritizes retaliatory violence over healthy emotional relationships. These traits are causing his problems, and he even knows it; ‘Real mature, John!’ he berates himself after picking a pointless fight with his wife. What’s more, the resentment he feels towards his wife’s coke-sniffing, Rolex-wearing, besuited male colleagues indicates that in Los Angeles in 1988 John McClane’s version of masculinity is not only archaic but incompatible with modern life, modern relationships, and the corporate world.
Which of course is the cue for Gruber’s thugs to storm the building. And suddenly the very same traits that make McLane a bad husband and a bit of a jerk in regular life—namely, his rough demeanor, his controlling tendencies, his refusal to admit weakness—make him a good protector in a crisis. He wins his wife back with the very characteristics that drove her away. And this is the real reason Die Hard is the ultimate macho fantasy: Hollywood has dreamt up a scenario where McLane doesn’t really have to change who he is (his apology isn’t even heard by his wife) because outside circumstances really will make Holly ‘come crawling back’. In effect, the hostage situation allows McLane (presumably) to mend his relationship with his wife without weakening his position or admitting he was wrong (at least not to her), something that would have been impossible under any other circumstances. In a weird, twisted way, this crisis is actually the best-case scenario for a man like John McLane.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert complained, ‘As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.’ Ebert hits upon the driving problem of escapist fantasy, and the reason it so often requires wild leaps of the imagination: in order for the hero to be made right without actually changing, the world around him must be twisted to look wrong. Note how every unrealistic aspect of the plot is designed to support the premise that a hostage situation is better resolved by a lone renegade with a machine gun than by responsible negotiation. The villains are unforeseeably ruthless. The authorities are incompetent beyond belief. The only man who tries to negotiate is a dumb, corporate sleazebag who endangers lives before losing his own.
All this is because Die Hard is a fantasy. A highly sophisticated, beautifully crafted fantasy. And while you can bet on seeing the same ‘dude’s douche-y tendencies end up making him invaluable in a crisis’ plot in pretty much whatever second-rate action movie you end up seeing at the cinema this week, you’ll rarely see it done so masterfully. The whole plot adds up to an implausible yet convincing scenario where McLane’s toxic masculinity is an asset rather than a drawback. Of course, in a more realistic scenario, his macho approach would more likely just get people killed.
(In case you think I’m picking on the fellas, What is Fantasy? Pt. 2: Toxic femininity and the ‘perfect guy’ fantasy will be coming soon.)
White guilt is a bummer. In my experience, it tends to bite you at the most unexpected moments. The other day a friend asked me if I had gone to see Triple 9 at the cinema. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘I love Anthony Mackie.’ This accompanied by a demonstrative sigh and a hand pressed to my chest for emphasis (if I could have said #bae, I would have).
I felt weird about this exchange as soon as it was over. I’m not normally effusive about actors I like–and ‘like’ would certainly be a more accurate verb than ‘love’ to describe my feelings for Anthony Mackie, a black actor I find attractive and funny but whose work outside of Marvel I’m pretty unfamiliar with. White guilt whispered that mine was the exaggerated performance of a guilty racist.
Which sounds legitimate, except that Anthony Mackie really was the entire reason I went to see Triple 9. I searched every scene for him with a fangirl’s eagle-eyed attentiveness and disproportionate investment in his underdeveloped character. And looking back, I wondered how it was possible to feel guilty about an insincere display of enthusiasm when my enthusiasm had been so… well, sincere.
In the entry levels of Social Justice™, we tend to talk about racism as if its something straightforward, which is why we generally don’t address cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term for mental stress caused by holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and if you’re white and liberal and American in the year 2016, you’re basically guaranteed to suffer from it. Why? Well, on the one hand, you’ve unconsciously absorbed latent racist attitudes, just by virtue of growing up white in a country where legal segregation ended less than fifty years ago. On the other hand, you’ve been taught that racist is one of the worst things a human being can be.
Want proof? Take a look at any popular film about race. Hollywood tells us that true racists are loud, obvious, and irredeemable. They’re usually bitter, smug, or sadistic, even before you hear their views. And crucially, they’re almost always from another place (usually the rural South, a place Hollywood doesn’t seem to believe actually exists), or another class (racist because they’re ‘ignorant’), or another time (‘Grandma, you can’t talk like that anymore!’). The point is that racists are racist because they are a) fundamentally bad, and b) not us.
And this, Hollywood, is rich, because you can only hear so many sassy black women ‘you-go-girl’-ing their white girlfriends, magical old black men giving sage advice to gormless white protagonists, or comic black sidekicks screeching ‘Aw, hell no’ before you start to unconsciously absorb a few ideas. And yet in the same breath Hollywood insists that truly good people will always believe the right things, instinctively and without needing to be taught. So we can watch a film like 12 Years A Slave while reassuring ourselves us that in 1850 we too would have behaved like Brad Pitt’s Canadian Jesus and conveniently forget that Abraham Lincoln himself believed black people were biologically inferior and was disgusted by the very idea of integration (that’s true; look it up).
And while its disturbing to realize that even Saint Lincoln the Emancipator fell short of modern ‘non-racist white guy’ standards, it’s more disturbing to realize that back in his day those standards couldn’t even be found in most abolitionist circles. There’s nothing to reassure us that aren’t currently guilty of the same hypocrisy. And this is where cognitive dissonance comes in.
Clumsy metaphor time: imagine for a moment that your brain is hanging out in your skull, happily listening to Beyoncé (because who doesn’t love Beyoncé?), but in the distance it can also hear the distracting ‘untz-untz’ of subconscious racism. It’s a low, barely perceptible beat, growing increasingly frustrating, because your brain isn’t sure where it’s coming from or how to switch it off. So all it knows how to do is turn ‘Single Ladies’ up louder and louder until it drowns out the offending noise. This is your brain on cognitive dissonance. It results in what psychoanalysts call reactive love, which is basically the ‘I have black friends’ defense, except that it’s your subconscious defending you to yourself instead of to other people. It isn’t concealing or performing a feeling, but rather encouraging and cultivating one that will make you feel better about yourself.
And we can see this kind of reactive love surrounding the black celebrities white liberals have elevated to superhuman status: Obama, Oprah, Beyoncé (is it coincidence that these get single-name titles like religious figures?) It’s a love bordering on worship, and this is because reactive love is by its nature extravagant, compulsive, and inflexible. Unlike garden-variety love, it’s hard to dial down, keep to yourself, qualify, or adapt to changing circumstances. To be clear: whether or not this love is warranted is not the issue; the issue is how it makes white liberals feel about ourselves. One shouldn’t discount the importance of feeling good as a factor when I proudly claim Janelle Monáe can do no wrong, when I read Neil Degrasse Tyson’s tweets religiously, when I watch every film that has Queen Latifah in it, when I believe anything Morgan Freeman says, or when I say how much I love Anthony Mackie, compulsively, and without really meaning to.
These feelings are not insincere. Reactive love isn’t false love. It’s just not organic love. It’s fed by an anxious overeagerness to find black people lovable and, like a genetically engineered plant, its fruits are suspiciously excessive.
So what’s wrong with it? On the surface, nothing. But it does benefit the lover more than the beloved. For instance, white fans fell madly in love with Lupita Nyong’o and her perfect everything when she took home an Oscar and the ‘Most Beautiful Woman’ title two years ago. We derived obvious pleasure and inspiration from sharing her best red carpet looks, watching her funniest interviews, and basking in her general flawlessness. Yet ‘Queen Lupita’ has had exactly two film roles (one of which was motion capture) in the same length of time it took Hollywood to make everyone sick of Jennifer Lawrence and Benedict Cumberbatch by putting them in everything. You can’t eat love, as they say.
The other problem, perhaps more important, is that reactive love divorces black people from their blackness. Loving something can be like stamping your mark on it. ‘Scandal is my favorite show!’ you might cry, the word my bringing a sense of safety in proprietorship; Scandal, and by association Kerry Washington, are part of your identity, they are yours. ‘Nicki Minaj = Queen’, you might tweet, thereby casting yourself as one of her subjects; she is your Queen, she is for you. I personally have caught myself tagging pictures of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon as #futurehusband, which is every bit as gross and proprietary.
I think this might have been why white people, even proudly anti-racist white people, were blindsided by ‘Formation’; many of us had been operating under the unspoken assumption that because we loved her, Beyoncé’s music was as much for us as it was for black people, as though our love could strip her of her race and origins, as though the pedestal we put her on necessarily isolated her from her black fans and fellow black artists, as though her celebrity somehow automatically transcended race. That’s why ‘Formation’ was a slap in the face to a lot of white people. It felt like Beyoncé was rejecting our love, and she was, because it was conditional and hypocritical. White liberals can always react to something black (and therefore threatening) by loving it it until it is theirs (and therefore safe).
Why are anti-racist white liberals even threatened by blackness? Well, for one thing, blackness makes us feel white. Hands up who likes feeling white? Exactly nobody. In my experience, most white people would rather identify with anything other than our whiteness. In high school, I used to cite a complex history within Western Orientalism to argue that being Greek didn’t really count as being white (I’ve heard similar arguments made by Jewish and Italian people). And I’ve heard others respond to being called white with a defensive ‘But I’m gay, so…’ or ‘But I’m a woman, so…’ or ‘But I’m disabled, so…’ as though these identities could somehow cancel out the offending whiteness and, by association, the crushing white guilt that invariably accompanies it.
White guilt is a problem here, not a solution. And it sounds paradoxical, but if we are to tackle racism head on we need to learn how to be comfortable with being white, not because there’s nothing to be uncomfortable about but because our discomfort distorts things. It distorts the way we understand racism. It distorts the way we perceive ourselves. It distorts what we feel and how we express it. It helps no one.
If we are to let go of white guilt and white shame we need to own our whiteness. Of course, ‘own your whiteness’ as a phrase provokes reflexive revulsion, even in me as I write it. It summons up associations with white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Our knee-jerk reaction is rather a hysterical colorblindness, a refusal to see the whiteness in ourselves that makes us so uncomfortable. Our instinctive response to this discomfort is to try to prove that we are different, that we are not like ‘those’ white people, that we can transcend our race through love. That we are white, but. We are white, but we are sorry. We are white, but we know what it’s like to be oppressed. We are white, but we once took a seminar on African American literature. We are white, but Falcon is our favorite Avenger (#bae).
Yes, we all know on a rational level that no amount of cringing, apologizing, and ‘gee-I-feel-so-awful’-ing will change the fact that we are unfairly privileged, and yet we keep striving to live up to the Hollywood myth that good people are good not because they do good things but because they believe the right things. If only we could stop striving to achieve a mythical ‘non-racist’ identity, we could instead focus our energy on real counter-racist action. And if we accept that the truth doesn’t always make us feel good about ourselves, maybe we’ll be better equipped to recognize it when the time comes.