Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sucker Punch (review)

Style? Certainly. Substance? We'll see.

So... this movie. My wonderful sister Michelle recommended it to me, and while it won't make it onto any of my "Favorite Whatever" lists I'm definitely glad I watched it. On the one hand, the film is far from perfect and its thematic inconsistencies make any comprehensive reading of the film almost impossible. On the other hand, it not only manages to illustrate some interesting theoretical concepts rather well, but also the division it created between its fans and its critics points to a similar division between film theorists and how they view the possibility for a feminist cinema.

Sucker Punch's plot has been compared to Inception's for its use of different levels of reality, and while the two movies have very different agendas (and varying levels of success) I think the comparison might be helpful for those who haven't seen the former. We begin at the base level of reality with a woman only known as Babydoll (Emily Browning) being imprisoned in a mental institution by her abusive father where the corrupt orderlies are bribed into giving her a lobotomy. Immediately before the lobotomy is being performed, we enter the second level of reality where Babydoll is instead trapped in a brothel with four other women (Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber). In the brothel, Babydoll performs erotic dances for customers during which we enter the third and final level of reality which I'll refer to as Babydoll's fantasy. The rest of the movie oscillates between these two levels until the very end when we return to the first.

The plot of the movie revolves around a mystery quest Babydoll is given when she first enters her fantasy realm. She is told by an unnamed character credited as "Wise Man" that she must collect a set of items which will allow her to escape the brothel and, by association, the hospital. She manages to recruit the other four girls, but the items become increasingly more difficult to obtain as the brothel owner's (the hospital orderly's) suspicions grow. Eventually the women are caught, and while facing the punishment of the brothel owner it becomes unclear whether they will be able to succeed in their mission.

Babydoll about to be lobotomized.

Sucker Punch was perhaps the most controversial, polarizing movie Hollywood has seen in the past couple of years. According to Metacritic, the movie received an average review of 33%, whereas RottenTomatoes shows that 23% of the movie reviews were positive (>50%). User-submitted data on these sites shows another trend, however, with only 27% of Metacritic users and 32% of IMDb users giving the movie a negative review. What's going on here? As an amateur reviewer myself, I tend to resist the idea that the critics are the only ones who understand how bad the movie is and the amateur reviewers are simply dazzled by the bright lights and pretty colors (especially considering critics can't agree on why the movie is bad, and the few that gave it positive reviews tend to accept its criticisms and argue that it's good nonetheless). While the movie's vagueries may have left room for amateurs to project nonexistent depth where professionals perceive vacuity, Sucker Punch is far from devoid of meaning.

One of the main reasons this film has divided its audience so significantly is its relationship to feminism and the portrayal of the feminine body. The story revolves around five young women who rarely wear substantial clothing and who otherwise fit a variety of traditional male fantasies. That said, I want to argue that there are two distinct ways to watch Sucker Punch, and that while the first option (dismissing the film as sexist) is certainly easier, the second is supported at least as well by the text and is much more interesting and theoretically rigorous.

The first reading of Sucker Punch stems from the basic surface understanding that the movie objectifies the women in it by portraying them as overly sexualized. While this may seem too simple to some (especially followers of so-called lipstick feminism), it does have its roots in traditional film theory. The most widely known essay on the subject is easily Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Mulvey argues that cinema offers mastery over what it presents, and thus that erotic portrayal of the female body works to marginalize women: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."

This is how the movie opens.

There are a couple of problems with this reading of the movie, however. First, it seems to ignore how self-aware and metatheatrical the film is. Not only does the movie open with curtains being drawn back, a clear indication that we are about to watch a movie about movies, but Sweet Pea also points out how ridiculously oversexualized Babydoll is the moment we enter the brothel. Second, more recent developments in film theory (Mulvey wrote her famous essay in 1975) have shown how earlier film theorists limited understanding of Lacan created a theory with minimal basis in reality. As Todd McGowan explains in the introduction to his amazing book The Real Gaze, these theorists relied largely on one essay (the "mirror stage essay") which was written before Lacan had fully developed his theory of the gaze. As Lacan expanded his theory, the gaze grew from something active concerning mastery into something passive but potentially subversive. McGowan argues,

In Lacan's conception of desire, the gaze is not the vehicle through which the subject masters the object but a point in the Other that resists the mastery of vision. It is a blank spot in the subject's look, a blank spot that threatens the subject's sense of mastery in looking because the subject cannot see it directly or successfully integrate it into the rest of its visual field. This is because, as Lacan points out, the gaze is "what is lacking, is non-specular, is not graspable in the image." Even when the subject sees a complete image, something remains obscure: the subject cannot see how its own desire distorts what it sees. The gaze of the object includes the subject in what the subject sees, but this gaze is not present in the field of the visible.*

The gaze is a "blank spot", it is "lacking" and "non-specular", and it is the point at which the subject's "own desire" is registered in the image. If you've seen the movie maybe you already know where I'm going with this. In Sucker Punch, the dances performed by the women in the brothel are never shown, and instead what we see is an obvious fantasy scenario in which the girls fight off dragons, Nazis, etc. These lacking portions, these absences, are the precise location of the gaze. If the scenes in the brothel are representations of man's attempt to (visually) master these women, then these missing dances are the point "that resists the mastery of vision" not only diegetically (they are using the dances to escape from their subjugation) but literally (the objectifying gaze of the audience is repeatedly denied the pleasure of witnessing the dances). This creates a space which not only liberates the women from the men in the movie, but also from the men in the audience.

In theory. In practice, I don't think Zack Snyder really pulled it off. He left too many ambiguities, too many unanswered questions, too much for the audience to decide for themselves. The central problem with this reading is that during these very spaces where the women are supposed to be resisting the male gaze, they're be objectified simply in a different way. They're running around a fantasy land still ruled by men (the "Wise Man" has to tell them what to do) and still as scantily clad as before. While there's certainly strong potential for an emancipatory feminist politics within Sucker Punch, it's not enough to counteract the fact that for almost 2 hours you watched some girls run around in little more than their underpants.



Further reading: I was inspired to think more critically about Sucker Punch by reading this article. While I don't agree with all the arguments it makes, I think it's pretty solid and certainly written & thought through more competently than a lot of "scholarship" I've seen about this movie.

*McGowan, Todd, The Real Gaze, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 2007

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this movie, I thought it was quite nuts and a little arousing, though the lack of nudity was a downer. None of the actresses were memorably-sexy, and even though it was cool to see girls in underwear all the time, I was more interested in the visual effects. I like the idea that it's completely sexist (that just means it's an interesting movie), although from what I can remember, it seemed pro-girl-power. However, I haven't been inclined to revisit the movie. I gave it 8 out of 10. It was good. I might watch it again soon. Thanks!

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    1. Definitely a stunning movie visually. I think Snyder was trying to make a pro-girl-power movie, which is probably why it feels that way, I just think he didn't quite succeed. I would be open to watching it again & reconsidering though since I think it's a rather complex film.

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