Saturday, 31 March 2018

So Many Monsters?

This year I have decided to go to the cinema more often. My attendance had severely dipped over the past few years, so I figured if I had the discipline of writing reviews for a website, and took advantage of some of the ‘offers’ at my chosen cinema (Edinburgh’s fabulous Filmhouse) I would build up my film-count. So far I’ve been to eight screenings, and seen thirteen films.
If that sounds exaggerated, it’s because one screening was a selection of short films, under the title Written on the Body. This was a tricky review to write because it was far-from main-stream cinema. The films were curated as part of Scotland’s LGBT History month, and the selection was intended to challenge perceptions.
Possibly the best moment came before the films began, when an advert for a fabric softener pedalling the usual heteronormative bullshit – ‘beautiful’ woman gets to kiss ‘dishy’ bloke just because her clothes smell nice – solicited a loud “Booo” followed by audience laughter.
I’m a strong believer in the ‘theatrical’ element of cinema (thankfully, Filmhouse has a no popcorn policy) because the audience-reaction makes the film an experience.  Two films in particular made uncomfortable viewing with their focus on the mistreatment of children, and rattled skeletons for me too.
Loveless was a bleak picture of a child caught in the crossfire of warring parents, and reminded me of a friend who was in a similar position some years ago. The difference being that he and his daughter’s mother both wanted the best out of love for their child, whereas the parents in Loveless lived up to the film’s title.
Contrasting with this sparse film was the gutsy You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay. I focussed on the ‘gendered’ aspect (I wasn’t alone among film critics) rather than the plot, which I prefer not to spoil when I review a film. Likewise, I tend not to read any preview details of a film, and avoid the adverts assiduously.
Would I have wanted to watch this film had I known about the child prostitution aspect is hard to say. Some thirteen years ago, a project I was running with teenagers unveiled some dark and disturbing truths about children involved in the sex-trade. My fragile state of mental health at the time created turbulence that has continued to rock my world, even though I’m in a much better place now. But it sickens me to discover that the same situation of kids being trafficked for sex on the streets of Glasgow still exists. It’s as if they were never really there all those years ago.
On a lighter note, I moved out of my comfort-zone by reviewing something far-less depressing: Lady Bird. Coming-of-age movies aren’t usually my thing, and this one was pretty standard in terms of content, but the superb acting, script, and subtle character focus (more about the mother than the daughter) made this a strong contender for the Oscars. Sadly, it didn’t score... Hollywood has clearly got more-than feel-good on its agenda these days.
Before I get to the Oscars (in writing) I saw a pair of films that I didn’t review by Warwick Thornton: Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country. The former was one of the films chosen to celebrate 40 Years of Filmhouse, and the tickets were at 2010 prices. For the latter film, I took advantage of a half-price Filmhouse Explorer ticket.
Both films were an eye-opening portrayal of indigenous people – one contemporary, the other, historical – demonstrating how appallingly settlers treat a country’s natives. And both films were gripping, bold, and sumptuously shot.
The final two films in this round-up scored well at the Oscars. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri earned Sam Rockwell best supporting actor, and Frances McDormand best actress. Her acceptance speech, ending with the words “inclusion rider” was a clarion-call to the film industry to sort out its inherent sexism and lack of inclusivity.

Likewise, when Guillermo del Toro accepted his Best Film award for The Shape of Water, pointing out that he was from Trump’s much-hated country, he made the message of the film quite clear. In some ways I found the premise a little silly: mute woman falls in love with slimy creature in a top secret government laboratory. Yes of course, it was fantasy, and the portrayal of the nasty men made it obvious who the real ‘monsters’ were – or are.
Yet I feel there is something deeper – you could say, below the surface – in what this film is saying. We make monsters of people at our peril. Hitler called the Jews ‘pigs’ to humiliate and de-humanise them. People whose social behaviour or situation is below par are described as ‘animal’ or ‘feral’ or worse. Around ten years ago the OED coined a new meaning for the word ‘beast’ suggesting that it is the name given in prisons to sex offenders – although I wonder if that originated in the tabloids.
After all, they use the expression ‘in the pen’ to describe custody, and print pictures of people who commit dreadful crimes with captions that read, ‘THE FACE OF A MONSTER.’ I’m not excusing any crimes, whether committed out of calculated evil or cognitive dissonance. The vast majority of offences are perpetrated by people whose lives or minds aren’t in a good state; calling them monsters is hardly likely to help them re-build their lives.
Those from whom the outside community needs permanent protection may have performed utterly unacceptable acts, but calling them ‘monsters’ only reflects on a society bent on revenge, retribution and name-calling. In The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkin’s character, Elisa, points out that by not trying to save the doomed creature, it is they who become animals.
The slippery slope for those who call others animals begins with a President who calls a woman’s pudenda ‘pussy’ and ends with a Dictator slaughtering those he considers lower than ‘pigs.’
I’ve used a double trump-card here, not only by invoking that bonehead Donald (now I’m calling names, but not in a bestialised way) but also, Godwin’s Law: to end an argument with Hitler.
Humans love using extremes. Perhaps it’s because it gives them a sense of proportion. Godwin’s Law is about losing that proportion; the same can be said of bestial name-calling. In the gamut of criminal offences, those defined as ‘sexual’ represent the same trumping effect. Whether a person has raped someone or simply flashed their privates in public, they will be branded like an animal, and made to 'sign' a register that will restrict their volition and - some might say - human rights.
The official duration of this registration will depend on the severity of the sentence. But it comes down to this: it’s easier for a murderer to re-habilitate into society having done their time than it is for a sex-offender to complete their sentence, or for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. It’s not an easy subject to stomach, and with articles such as this one that asks what to do with the art of monstrous men, surely the first answer would be: stop calling them monsters. How else are we going to reconcile humanity with its inherent fragility?
Sadly the article, after too many words, fizzles out inclusively with an unsympathetic fallacy that suggests all artists have to be monsters! Haven’t we all erred and strayed like lost sheep? Maybe. And with that final animal reference, I’ll end by saying, it’s Easter. I don’t take the resurrection myth literally, but I do adhere to a simple creed, first used as a motto by Christian Aid many years ago.
I believe in Life before Death.

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