Friday, June 24, 2011

Sucker Punch, the Musical


Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige encouraged us to watch closely, to see the trick within the narrative, but also warned us that we wouldn’t find it, because we aren’t interested in knowing the truth: we want to be fooled.Maybe Nolan should have included a similar style of disclaimer at the beginning of Inception, given the proliferation of websites explaining the layers of the dream to confused theatre-goers. Add the challenges Black Swan presented viewers in discerning reality from madness, and you’d think we’d have accrued some savvy in making sense of fractured narratives in virtual and psychological spaces. I’m dubious about the depth the average movie-goer views a movie at, but after reading a number of reviews for Zack Synder’s SuckerPunch back in March and April, I’m even less hopeful. Consider Ron Porter’s "brilliant" assessment that the insane asylum protagonist Babydoll is sent to “is actually a front for a brothel/dance club.”  I’m not sure if Mr. Porter was in an actual brothel/dance club when he saw the film, but anyone who’s mistaken the bordello level for reality wasn’t paying any sort of attention at all. 

In my line of work as a University English instructor, I am often reminded of how little we as viewers or readers pay attention. Jay Bardyla, owner of Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton says the same of comic readers who skim their issues rather than actually reading both text and image. Many reviews of and responses to Sucker Punch, both positive and negative, illustrate how little North American film goers, both professional critics and average Joe, are paying attention, or thinking critically about what they're watching.

Consider Big Shiny Robot's complaint about the mental disorientation Snyder ostensibly produces playing “fast and loose with time and place at every level of the story”:

The insane asylum is vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s. The whore house is Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look – but they dance to contemporary artists like Björk. Then the fight sequences are just all over the place merging the past with futurism etc etc. Which makes you ask the question; How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?!?!

Big Shiny Robot has done a fine job of assessing what he saw: he has described all three layers of Sucker Punch's reality with brilliant concision. Let's review those layers before moving on. First, there's the "vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s." Big Shiny Robot gets an A for his alliteration of vague and vintage, but also for how spot on this estimation is. The first level of reality is vague, it is vintage, and it's definitely circa, not a particular year.Furthermore, his choice of "Americana" is brilliant, as it denotes a collective grouping of items or visuals that evoke America. We know this isn't taking place in Asia, or even Europe. The look has an American sensibility to it. Beyond that, we can't say with precision where in America this story takes place. Overall, it has that "once upon a time" aspect of fairy tale films, like Edward Scissorhands, which was vague contemporary/gothic mashup, circa 1980s. There is a sense that this is happening in a past, but not a terribly particular one.The first level of reality is characterized by a desaturated, cool color palette akin to that of the virtual world in The Matrix. The girls are not made up, and wear tattered, ragged clothing.
 
Observe the following images from The Art of Suckerpunch, as they demonstrate how the visual design of the film was intended to blur the levels of reality. Clearly, however, we're dealing with a different narrative space, even if the characters are in the same actual place
 Level Two is the whore house, which Big Shiny Robot describes as "Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look." Again, Big Shiny Robot (BSR)has astutely placed the visual aesthetic: but Gypsy Rose Lee performed Burlesque prior to the 50s and 60s BSR already mentioned. Already the temporal feel of the film is blurry. The viewer can now conclude one of two things: Zakk Snyder has made a terrible period picture, or this film will be playing fast and loose with historical looks and styles. This is not Stand by Me. The look of this level of reality contains a warmer colour palette, though the hospital green still finds its way into the background. The girls are no longer bedraggled mental patients, but gorgeous dancers. The hospital staff have become the manager and bouncers of the burlesque club. Babydoll's father has become a Catholic Priest, again underscoring how ridiculous it would be to miss the difference between levels one and two.
The third level of reality, of Babydoll's pure imagining, is "just all over the place merging the past with futurism." Again, yes. It's all over the place. It merges the past with futurism. So do music videos and video games, both styles of filmmaking Sucker Punch was pejoratively compared with. Zakk Snyder is again playing fast and loose. Everything BSR said is true - but does that necessarily make it a poorly made film, or has it simply not lived up to BSR's expectations? This level is characterized by the girls looking like they stepped out of an Anime, armed to the teeth in outfits unsuitable for combat, as open to the Male Gaze as their burlesque costumes. Again, note the similarity between the Asylum/Whore House architecture and the design art for the castle. As Snyder notes in The Art of Suckerpunch, "each combat fantasy [features] a building - the pagoda, the cathedral, the castle - all of which are reminiscent of Lennox House in one way or another" (168).

So Big Shiny Robot is aware that this film plays loose and fast with history and styles. Yet despite admitting this, BSR then asks, as many did, a literal question of correspondence, "How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?" BSR has mistakenly assumed this is a period piece. Like detractors of Snyder's earlier film, 300, the assumption is that Synder isn't playing fast and loose with time and place in either film. 300 was panned by historians for its lack of historical accuracy, when 300 was a dead accurate cinematic creation of its source material, a comic by Frank Miller. Likewise, Sucker Punch draws its stylistic tool box from a style of film BSR would likely hate: Moulin Rouge!, which Katherine Monk astutely compares SuckerPunch to. Even without Snyder’s open admission of  inspiration from Baz Luhrman’s mashup of classic pop/rock with cabaret, courtesans, and the can can, similarities are evident, such as the trademark Red Curtain opening at the very beginning of the film. The observant viewer will note that there are two Red Curtains in that moment, signifying the layers of reality we will soon be party to viewing. Additionally, it also shows that the "reality" of Baby Doll's home life is taking place on a stage set, further problematizing the ontological stability of any of the story's layers. Note the design art again, which shows the stage inside Lennox House, mirroring this first stage. Stages as spaces of performance before an audience's gaze, primarily male, appear regularly in the film.
 Perhaps audiences would have understood the Luhrman influence better had Synder gone full gonzo and filmed the opening scenes with Emily Browning lipsyncing her own vocals to the film’s goth-styled cover of Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams.” Suckerpunch: The Art of the Film features a photo of “all the ladies together, practicing a musical number with compose Marius de Vries,” sheet music in hand (21).  
 
Another section of The Art of the Film, “The Theater,” contains images, both conceptual and completed, of at least three large-scale musical numbers. A still shot captured from one of the trailers shows the girls engaged in one of these dance numbers. Another still image showcases Vanessa Hudgens dancing, which certainly explains why an actress best known for her performance in High School Musical was cast in this film. Snyder wasn’t casting an “action-fantasy-thriller,” as Wikipedia purports; he was casting an action-fantasy-musical. I had concluded as much during the end credits of the film, which gave Snyder an opportunity to show footage of Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac performing a cover of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug.” I began to wonder how many other musical numbers were abandoned along the way or left on the cutting room floor due to studio pressure.
 
 
Consider the soundtrack of nine covers intended to “bring all of the baggage” memories of the original songs would evoke (Snyder qtd. in Rosenberg). Detractors of the film spoke of a lack of depth, but ignored the extra layer of meaning the soundtrack provided. Not lyrically, necessarily, but in the poetic sense of what the song might stand for. Take the remix of Björk’s “Army of Me” featuring Skunk Anansie, a UK hard rock band fronted by Skin, a black female model who once described the band’s music as “clit rock” (skinmusic.net), and stated that at one point in her career, "Every interview … started off by describing me as a scary bald bisexual black six-foot-four Amazonian.” The combination of Björk and Skin singing “Army of Me” evokes more than the song’s lyrics, which are about Björk’s perpetually jobless younger brother. After the inclusion of this song on the Tank Girl soundtrack, it seemed to become an anthem for strong women. This is the sonic backdrop of Babydoll’s battle with the demonic Samurai: so while we only see Emily Browning onscreen, we effectively have three women represented. This is why Babydoll can imagine Björk’s music: not because it makes sense from a factual or historical standpoint, but because it makes sense from an stylistic, ideological standpoint.
Of the soundtrack’s nine covers, only one is performed entirely by men, a mashup of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “I Want it All” featuring rapper Armageddon. The music plays over the introduction to the dance stage of the bordello reality, giving voice to lust of the Mayor, Blu, and other men ready to leer at Babydoll’s performance. Two of the remaining eight songs are duets, while the rest are sung solely by women. Consider further, that many were originally sung by men: “Seek and Destroy” by Iggy Pop, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies, and “Asleep” by the Smiths. In addition to “Army of Me,” only Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” were sung first by women. This may seem incidental, but if we view Suckerpunch as a musical, or in its released form, a long-form music video, it isn’t incidental, but important: the songs construct another layer of story. The film may lack character development, but so do most music videos, replacing coherent narrative with dynamic camera motion, dancing, rapid edits, and the lyrics, tempo, and mood of the music to communicate an idea. 

What idea is Suckerpunch trying to communicate, you ask?  That Was Junk offered "ten points" to anyone who could decipher the message. Again, I’m a little saddened people didn’t get it, but seeing as most arguments around Inception centered on whether “he’s still in the dream” at the end, or viewers Pan’s Labyrinth wonder “was the fairy tale real or not,” we’ve had years of practice at missing the point. In both those cases, there is no definite answer to those questions: if that’s all you got, you’re missing the point. In Inception, the ending is a character moment – he puts down the top he’s been so obsessively spinning throughout the film, effectively communicating he doesn’t care whether he’s in the dream anymore or not. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the fairy tale elements mirror the resistance and rebellion of the war story. They are thematically consistent.

Likewise, anyone looking for perfect equivalencies in Suckerpunch is asking the wrong questions. Emilíana Torrini’s cover of “White Rabbit” reminds us we’ve gone down the rabbit hole, into a world with the logic of Lewis Carrol crossed with Heavy Metal. Many reviewers pejoratively compared SuckerPunch to video games and music videos, as though montage and stylistic visuals are incapable of rendering Snyder’s message worth taking seriously. Yes, SuckerPunch works like a music video, and that’s precisely why it mashes up B-52 Bombers over Mordor-like battlescapes. It is an over-the-top pastiche of major action film tropes: war, martial arts, fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all rolled together without regard for convention liminality or temporality.

The film is self-reflexive, painfully aware of how rote many of its moves will be. Consider the cliches Scott Glen delivers throughout: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Many critics mistook this for deadpan serious, but not in the Alan West way they should have. Everyone on screen knows such pithy statements are bullshit, but they are the stock-in-trade of the male-dominated action picture: if they’d painted Glen’s face up with blue woad and put him on a horse in front of Scotsmen yelling those lines, perhaps he’d be up for an academy award. Posters told us “You Will Not Be Prepared.” Obviously, we would be prepared for the imagery of the combat fantasies, derivative of any number of blockbuster pictures. But I'd argue the film is aware of this obvious move, based upon Sweet Pea's words when we first enter the second level of reality: "This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what's this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?" This is the line that indicated Snyder knew what he was doing with this bold film. Partial Objects did a hell of a job following this line of inquiry up shortly after the film was released, and I concur with much of what he says there. 
What I suspected when I saw the film was that all levels of reality were prisons. Not one of them was a space of freedom, whatever any supporter of the film has said about the emancipation of women as represented by ass-kicking chicks in badass armor killing zombies and dragons. Babydoll's dance doesn't allow her to escape. Every level is a trap. Compare these images from The Art of Suckerpunch showing the layout of Lennox House and the WWI trenches in the second combat fantasy:
If all of the levels are prisons, then the answer to the question "why would a woman escape into a fantasy of strippers or ass-kicking in scantily clad armor?" becomes, "she wouldn't. You would." I'll give the floor to Partial Objects, as he's done a fine job of making this point:
But the movie is self aware. Are the women hot, like the audience would expect? Sure. Do they do ninja acrobatics as the audience wants them to? Hell yeah. Which explains why Babydoll told, in level 2, “if you do not dance, you have no purpose.” Hey, she’s right.
And self-aware means aware of the audience. Why would a 20 year old girl, to escape the horrors of a retro mental asylum, create the fantasy that she’s in a bordello?
She’s doesn’t: we do. Putting a hot girl in an asylum immediately sexualizes it– the possibility/hope that vulnerability means penetration is considered by us, and the director just makes it explicit. The prostitutes in the movie have to dance for their clients; the actresses in our movie have to dance (ninja style) for ours.
And this is the prison the women of Suckerpunch are trapped inside: one Male Gaze fantasy after another, and each one done with wild abandon, exposing how troublesome each one is. People have asked me if I really think Synder is this smart: I would point them to the final moments of the film, when Sweatpea is about to board the bus that will take her...home? She is wearing a demure outfit, and yet remains a target for the Male Gaze of all men around her, save the Wise Man, Scott Glen's character, who in Wizard of Oz fashion, is now in the "real" world. As she steps on the bus, he states "We've still got a long way to go." And insofar as the liberation and emancipation of women, we do.

This isn't just about skimpy costumes and Barbie doll figures wielding two-handed swords with ease. It's about trapping others in an expectation, an objectification, where a person is no longer a thing, but merely an object to stick something into. This is what Babydoll becomes when she is lobotomized, no different than a sex doll or pornographic image. This is no longer a person, but merely an orifice. And if our reaction to her lobotomy is horror, then that is the right one to have. Many of us are like Madame Gorski, complicit in the system that keeps women trapped in these spaces. Others are like Babydoll, railing against the system. And this is what is meant by the closing narration, and the line that drives one of my colleagues absolutely batshit:
Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time, things that will never die? Who teaches us whats real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend? Who trains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!
I'm convinced that the "you" in this monologue is the audience. The fight we're being encouraged towards is one of equality, of feminism. The weapons are not the ones we've seen throughout the film. Babydoll's tragic accident involving a handgun at the beginning of the film is proof enough of that. Further, the weapons the girls use in the combat fantasies are also proven impotent. Some other weapon is required. Granted, Snyder may not have suggested the weapons to us, but at least we have the discussion on the table once more.
Ultimately, I don’t care if people like Suckerpunch or not. I just wish that critics and viewers alike were watching more carefully. But why should I be surprised people aren’t paying that close of attention? Movie soundtracks rarely reward the listener with another level of meaning: too often they are the descendants of the Godzilla soundtrack. The only connection between that soundtrack’s songs and the movie were samples of the big G’s roar. We haven’t seen a pop-soundtrack of Suckerpunchs caliber since The Crow. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a generation raised on soundtracks “inspired by” movies (but having nothing to do with them short of marketing strategy) aren’t listening very closely to the music in the background. Combining a close read of the film with the soundtrack and the Art of the Film book has made for a rewarding study. It's extended my viewing of the film beyond the screen, and taken me to a deeper place of contemplation and research than merely giving the movie a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Suckerpunch is a musical, or at the very least, the result of a filmmaker who grew up along with MTV, who was likely forming up plans for future movies while watching the storied videos of Kate Bush, David Bowie, or Michael Jackson. I’ve been told Sucker Punch is bad film, and maybe that’s true. But as a two hour concept video, or quasi musical, it kicks my ass. When the extended DVD comes out next week, I'll be getting mine, in the hope more of the musical is up on the screen.

NOTE: I can't recommend Sucker Punch: The Art of the Film enough. It opens up a whole new layer of understanding the film, from the dance numbers and architectural concept art shown here, to the intricate tattoo-style art on Babydoll's katana and gun. Really gorgeous book, well worth having.

5 comments:

  1. Sucker Punch sucked not because people didn't understand the ascetics and layering, but because the narrative is dislodged by Snyder's last minute Slight of hand.


    Spoilers below


    By Shifting the narrative ark away from Baby Doll at the very end of the film, Snyder cuts all emotional investment in the narrative of his audience. With this "sucker punch," he attempts a Sixth Sense slight of hand. However the affect is more like the title than Snyder perhaps may have meant. While some too caught up in the shear awesomeness of the spectacle might have been able to by pass it, many audience members aren't able to reconnect their severed connection to the narrative. The result is a failed movie. Not failed because people don't understand it, but failed because of poor story telling and the use of a narrative device that becomes cliched if not used with precision.

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  2. Thank you for a delightful and *comprehending* analysis of this film, rare among the venom from the confused rabble and guilt tripping pseudo-feminists.

    To the reviewer and to Bubbles:

    I wonder if you've considered it through the lens of the following question: Does Baby Doll even exist? Watch again and pivot everything around Sweet Pea's expository monologue in the lobotomy rehearsal scene. "After all, I'm the star of the show!"

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  3. Thanks, Mr. Shreck! Yes, I've wondered about her existing at all, and find that a very satisfying road to travel. That lobotomy rehearsal scene is pivotal for that concept, what with the perspective shifting from "Babydoll" to Sweet Pea in one swift edit. The original presentation I gave of this did some intertextual musings between it all being in Sweet Pea's head and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's the Yellow Wallpaper. I think there are some spaces for dialogue there, and given your encouragement, will seek to explore them in the months to come.

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  4. Bubbles...a simple switch is never as simple as it seems...in fact the switch happens before the movie even begins...for if you listen the narrative throughout the entire movie is in fact NOT BabyDoll at all, it is always SweatPea, and she is speaking of the Angel that comes to save her when she least expects it...given that SweatPea herself is actually attempting to be that same such thing for her sister Rocket, but fails and in-turn gives up on hope and instead finds an inner strength to lead her fellow inmates through the daily grind of living with what life has dealt you. The emotional ties are in fact tightened with each new resolve of SweatPea's attempts to keep her sister safe, and then finally sealing her fate when her sister does the saving, giving SweatPea her life and freedom back by no longer being the burden of guilt she has from the start ... the final question this can raise is WHO then is the Angel that sets SweatPea free... BabyDoll who gives her physical freedom or Rocket who gives her emotional freedom, in fact even Blondie helps "free" SweatPea by confessing of the plan thus releasing her of all guilt, and in Amber's death her always ready "get-away-driver" frees her from the restraint of waiting on others for transportation so now she can freely run for her life...each character does their part in moving SweatPea along the path to personal and real freedom...Let yourself go and you will be Free...

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  5. Hear, Hear! Thanks for the further elucidation, Anonymous. You guys are doing a bang up job of filling in the gaps I left!

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