Thursday, 25 September 2008

Guest Post: Clever Things about Stupid Films

Having just finished watching Doomsday, it's clear that Neil Marshall badly needs to direct something he hasn't written, because that is one good lucking, fucking stupid film. It's a bimbo of a film. Which brings me nicely to my guest post. My brother did films studies at Uni, and wrote about gender issues and misogyny in Neil Marshall's films. And people saying smart things about beer and popcorn movies are always worth a read. So here you go:

Neil Marshall’s debut feature, 2002’s Dog Soldiers, offers a complex presentation of men and masculinity. Marshall’s decision to cast his lead characters as soldiers provides an interesting insight into the director’s own relationship with issues of masculinity – notions of ‘not being man enough’ become a recurring theme throughout the film. Dog Soldiers does not glamourise ‘male-ness’ per se but rather portrays the ‘hyper-masculinity’ of the tough, skilled soldiers as an ideal. The film’s first three sequences define Marshall’s take on masculinity – they present the ‘ordinary man’ as weak and passive while glorifying the idea of man as soldier. An unnamed camper (played by Craig Conway) serves as the film’s first presentation of male-ness – in terms of male archetypes, this character could perhaps be considered an example of the “new man” (see Monk, 2000: p.158). Marshall clearly defines the character’s ‘sensitive’ nature – through dialogue, it is established that he works as a writer and has maintained a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. He is also portrayed as being ill at ease with nature, lamenting the presence of “bloody midges” – a quality which is marked as decidedly un-masculine when his girlfriend refers to him as a “big girl’s blouse”.

In the subsequent scene, the couple’s tent is attacked by a pack of werewolves. The female camper is quickly dragged outside by the creatures and torn apart, leaving her boyfriend covered in blood and shaking with fear. Though a suitable weapon lies within the man’s reach – a silver dagger which the girl had previously presented to him as a gift – his feeble, shaking fingers are unable to grasp it in time and he too is killed. Repeatedly then, the male camper - while not obviously effeminate - is presented as un-masculine, his sensitive demeanour and lack of physical prowess leaving him unable to defend himself or his girlfriend. In the film’s second major sequence, Neil Marshall contrasts the camper’s ineffectual nature with the ingenuity and athleticism of Private Cooper (played by Kevin McKidd). While the male camper was unable to defend himself, Cooper – attempting to evade capture as part of a Special Forces selection process - displays impressive fighting skills, defeating three enemy soldiers and using a torch as an improvised weapon.

The film’s third major sequence introduces Cooper’s squad, led by Sergeant Harry G.. Wells (played by Sean Pertwee) and composed of Private Joe Kirkley (Chris Robson), Private Terry Milburn (Leslie Simpson), Private Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt) and Corporal Bruce Campbell (played by Thomas Lockyer and named in reference to the star of the Evil Dead horror trilogy released between 1981 and 1992). Neil Marshall’s decision to feature soldiers as the protagonists of Dog Soldiers raises a number of interesting points. Clearly, the fact that these characters are soldiers has a substantial impact on the film’s narrative - as the first scene demonstrates, ordinary men stand no chance against the werewolves. However, the soldiers – heavily armed and having received extensive physical training – are able to defend themselves, at least temporarily. It is the soldiers’ capacity for self-defence that provides the ‘action’ aspect of the film and helps distinguish them from the stereotype of the typical horror movie victim – a helpless (often female) figure prone to screaming, crying, running and little else – since while “male action films can indeed wallow in suffering, they also wallow in extended frenzies of sadism of a sort exceptional in horror” (Clover, 1992: p.18).

The soldiers are initially presented as straightforward, broadly masculine figures, exchanging rather vicious but good-natured banter. Marshall establishes the soldiers’ typically masculine nature early on in this third major sequence by revealing their love of football, since that sport is generally considered a male-dominated pastime (‘More than just a game’: 29/4/08). While the other soldiers are poised, ready for action, Joe – who laments being “stuck up the backside of beyond without so much as a six-pack or a telly” - sits sulking. Sergeant Wells subsequently reprimands him, barking “Get off your big fat lardy arse and make like a soldier!” - implying the soldiers’ superiority over ‘normal’ men who lack their military training. Wells also warns his men that, if they fail to defend themselves, their enemies “will be having your bollocks for breakfast”. Marshall’s decision to have the Wells character equate defeat with castration is an interesting one – this idea reoccurs later in the film when the soldiers discuss their personal fears. When Private Witherspoon – nicknamed ‘Spoon’ – admits that his greatest fear is castration, the other soldiers murmur in agreement, leading Cooper to respond “There’s no argument there”. Castration is thus presented by Marshall as the ultimate male anxiety – the soldiers presumably fearing that the loss of their genitalia would essentially relegate them to the role of women. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Sergeant Wells at one point refers to his squad as “ladies” in a derogatory fashion. The other soldiers’ confessions are equally revealing: Joe reveals that his greatest fear is watching a penalty shoot-out, demonstrating once again his masculine obsession with football, while Cooper – in the film’s first real example of misogyny – claims to be afraid of women.

Throughout Dog Soldiers, the male characters display a generally low opinion of women. Responding to Joe’s complaints about missing the football, Sergeant Wells assures his men that he would like nothing more than to “jump into a warm bed with a nice hot woman and watch the footy”. Wells’ statement reduces women to a sport or hobby enjoyed by men - the inference seems to be that they are to be ‘played with’ and then summarily dismissed. Neil Marshall subsequently furthers the notion that women should be regarded solely as sexual playthings, the other soldiers also equating women with football through a series of crude one-liners (“Planning on scoring, Sarge?” “Mind you don’t foul her in the penalty box!”). Marshall’s decision to have his male characters employ misogyny as a sign of their masculinity is perhaps unsurprising. Claire Monk has noted that while the 1990’s was a “decade of sexual liberation” the increasing prominence of women in the workplace “heralded a resurgence of masculinism and misogyny” (2000: p.157). Notably, few of Dog Soldiers’ male characters are openly aggressively misogynistic – the soldiers express any such sentiment by way of their unsophisticated, often vulgar jokes. This veneer of humour is important, as Monk has also discussed how the use of “post-modern irony or humour” had granted misogyny “a new respectability in some quarters” (2000: p.162). Marshall’s decision to employ humour in such instances is also important in maintaining the audience’s sympathy for his protagonists. While an audience member might disagree with the soldiers’ sexist statements, the use of humour creates a reasonable level of doubt as to their sincerity. Any claim that the soldiers’ dialogue is intended to be ironic or ‘tongue in cheek’ essentially absolves Marshall from accusations that he is presenting chauvinistic characters as heroes.

It is important to note however that while the soldiers do share certain masculine characteristics - such as their love of football, sexism and a refusal to show fear - Marshall ensures that each character displays their own memorable, individual traits. The character of Sergeant Wells, for example, is an interesting one, shifting as he does from typically masculine behaviour to a more sensitive demeanour. Wells is initially portrayed as a stereotypical high-ranking army official, barking orders at his men and reprimanding any behaviour he considers unprofessional. This persona reoccurs throughout the film - having been wounded by werewolves and forced to rely on Cooper to help him walk, Wells asks for his gun despite the fact that there is no immediate threat. It is as though the gun serves as a symbol of his masculinity – Wells is aware of his weakened state and so relies on the weapon to boost his self-image. At one point, the character (under heavy influence of alcohol, which Cooper is using as a sedative while tending to his Sergeant’s wounds) professes his love for his squad, claiming that “every single of ‘em could marry my sister” – implying something of a proprietary attitude towards women.

However, Neil Marshall also reveals a sensitive side to the character of Wells, contrasting the Sergeant’s sincere nature with the other soldiers’ emotionally reserved manner several times throughout the film. For example, at one point Wells recounts the tale of how his old friend Eddie Oswald was killed by an anti-tank mine while on patrol in Iraq and subsequently proposes a toast to his fallen comrade. The toast is followed by an awkward silence, only interrupted when Spoon begins telling another crude joke. Clearly, the soldiers have been made to feel uncomfortable by the emotional nature of Sergeant Wells’ story and so Spoon, the first to speak, uses humour as a defence mechanism, in order to prevent the discussion becoming too morbid or upsetting. The soldiers are therefore able to maintain their masculine emotional reserve.

Along with Sergeant Wells, another character who deviates substantially from the soldiers’ brash, masculine style is Private Terry Milburn. Neil Marshall repeatedly portrays Terry as the weakest of the soldiers. While the entire squad is shocked when a dead cow falls onto their camp from a cliff-top high above, only Terry loses his wits entirely – he fires upon the cow despite the fact that his weapon is loaded only with blank cartridges and remains unsettled for some time afterward, appearing anxious and trembling. Later, he is seen to vomit in the aftermath of a werewolf attack - unable to handle the pressure of a combat situation. Neil Marshall also ensures that Terry’s later attempts to reassert his masculinity are unsuccessful. Having apparently fended off another werewolf attack, Terry remarks “Dogs? More like pussies!”. Such masculine quips - a staple of the Hollywood action hero (Gibson, 2004: p.180) - occur throughout Dog Soldiers. For example, Cooper references the famous football quotation “They think it's all is now” at the film’s climax, immediately prior to shooting the final werewolf. However, Terry’s attempts to cast himself as a masculine action hero by making a wisecrack of this sort are promptly undermined when the werewolves return, dragging him through a window and killing him in a brutal fashion.

Thus far then, Neil Marshall appears (for the most part) to have followed the accepted rules of the classic horror movie – those who allow themselves to become victims are gendered female, while those who save themselves are male (Clover, 1992: p.59). In order for male characters to be killed, their masculinity must therefore be undermined in some way – for example, they are no longer able to employ a firearm as a masculine (somewhat phallic) symbol. At this point, it would perhaps prove useful to consider Dog Soldiers’ sole major female character – the zoologist Megan (played by Emma Cleasby). In introducing Megan, Marshall initially appears to subvert the conventions of gender in the horror film (see Clover, 1992: p.60). Rather than portray the female character as the victim who is rescued by a group of strong men, Marshall instead has Megan come to the squad’s aid – their leader seriously wounded, firing in all directions, the soldiers’ situation appears hopeless till she arrives in her car to save them. However, this role reversal does not last long – once the soldiers reach the apparent sanctuary of a nearby cottage, Megan is regarded by the soldiers as an outsider, a woman in a man’s world. Indeed, Marshall himself appears to feel the need to justify her presence, casting the character as something of a love interest for Cooper in a sub-plot that receives no real resolution. The film’s male characters frequently refer to Megan in this fashion – Sergeant Wells calls her Cooper’s “girlfriend” while the sinister Special Forces soldier Captain Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham) mocks their relationship, asking Cooper if he is “chasing that first kiss”.

Megan’s eventual betrayal of the soldiers is an important point to consider when examining Dog Soldiers’ depiction of women. The character is shown to be untrustworthy several times – she initially lies to the squad about her previous involvement with Captain Ryan, then later tricks them into using the last of their artillery to blow up an empty barn, allows the werewolves to infiltrate the cottage and finally reveals that she is a werewolf herself. The idea that Megan is an outsider among these men is thus reinforced by Marshall, as he reveals that she has in fact been working for the enemy the entire time. Interestingly, Marshall has Private Cooper display only anger toward Megan upon learning of her true nature – rather than expressing shock at the fact that she is a werewolf, he appears vindicated since, in his opinion, his misogynist attitude towards women has been justified by her betrayal. Cooper does not even discuss Megan’s unfortunate predicament – he remarks “new woman, same old shite” – indicating that her betrayal was inevitable not because she is a werewolf, but simply because she is female. Furthermore, Marshall even has Megan herself warn Cooper against trusting women - she remarks “Being nice to women will get you nowhere, Cooper. Being nice to me will get you killed” – and has the character explain her betrayal by revealing “It’s that time of the month”. Marshall is effectively demonizing the bodily functions of women, associating the female body with monstrous imagery simply because it differs from the male form.

Megan’s femininity seems to pose a problem for Marshall. While initially rather feminine in appearance and referred to as “posh” by the soldiers, the character becomes more masculine as the film continues - as though Marshall recognises her ‘outsider’ status and is attempting to integrate her into the male group. By the film’s conclusion, Megan is sweaty, wears a grubby vest and has become as foul-mouthed as the soldiers. This feminine to masculine transformation is a common trait of the horror film, such works repeatedly contemplating “mutations and slidings whereby women begin to look a lot like men” (Clover, 1992: p.15). However, while Megan may become masculine, she cannot truly become a man and so the character remains problematic, since male audience members often have difficulty with female characters who “behave malelike [sic] in their confrontation with horror” (Zillmann & Weaver III, 1996: p.96). The anxiety surrounding Megan’s character is thus expressed via her transformation into a werewolf, the character discarding the last of her feminine traits in order to become a grotesque exaggeration of masculinity – violent, vicious, hairy and meat-eating.

Friday, 19 September 2008

What was I thinking?

  1. Hmmm... I've had my beard for, like, three years now. That's a long time to have a beard.
  2. My beard retains smells. It's like having a merengue stuck to my face.
  3. A lot of people don't have beards. I look unusual.
  4. I should totally shave my beard. I'd look totally sexy if I shaved my beard.
  5. Hmmm, that's coming off in big chunks.
  6. Oh.
  7. Well, I do look younger.
  8. And yet somehow like my dad.
  9. Was my chin always this big? Were my eyes always that close together? My nose looks huge.
  10. My chin is cold.
  11. I miss my beard.
  12. I should totally grow my beard back. I'd look totally sexy if I grew a beard.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Dragons, and the slaying thereof...

"Children already know about dragons. What fairy tales tell children is that dragons can be slain." - G K Chesterton
One of my favourite tricks when I was at Uni in my beloved Brighton was taking one book, ripping all the quotes from it, and having a bibliography of ten books, by magic, with a hey presto. I've done that a bit again here, as I've just come across that quote in a collection of Neil Gaiman short stories, but fuck it, it illustrates my point.

Stories need hope.

Yeah, they need characters, and act turns and themes and probably dialogue, but other than and above all that they need hope.

I'm seeing a lot of stories without hope currently, and to me, that's writers hating their audience. It's writers saying "fuck you for reading/watching this". It's Johhny Rotten coming out for the encore, sneering "Ever feel like you've been had" and staggering back off.

Now don't get me wrong. I can handle a sad ending. Well, I say handle. I can cry like a hungry, angry baby at a sad ending. But I like them, sometimes. Cassablanca? Yep. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Yes please. King Kong (orginal)? Oh, most definitley.

But The Strangers? Wolf Creek? Closer? And, oh, sitting in the corner and stroking it's its* chin, laughing at the other boys at the party, Funny Games?

I truly fail to see the point.

Hope, people. We need hope.

Lets slay some dragons.


On the subject of hope, congratulations to James Henry and Patroclus, who have brought possibly the first Blog Baby, and certainly some hope, into the world.

* Darn.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The countryside is dangerous...

Sorry, that last blog post was rubbish. My brother called it the "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of Blog Posts", you wait ages, and then... balls. Sorry.

Anyway... the countryside is dangerous. Specifically, doing circular walks in the countryside is dangerous. One particularly good case of getting utterly fucking lost inspired the morphing forests in Seven Spires.

Today we went for another circular walk. Foolish, some might say.

Well... well, yeah. Yeah.

My girlfriend broke her wrist this afternoon. This is thoroughly rubbish, but to add extra rubbish, we were half way through the walk and in the middle of the god-damn woods.

So poor girlfriend, who was incredibly hardcore about the whole affair, had to walk another three miles, through similarly treacherous conditions to get back to the car. Which she did without moaning a bit.

I suspect I would have whined like... well, I was going to say a little girl, but given that my girlfriend is both a girl and physically quite little, this seems thoroughly inappropriate.

Like I said: hardcore.

Monday, 8 September 2008

I am quite fond of humans...

As a qualified librarian* it is with a heavy heart that I must inform you: your public libraries have been taken over by Daleks.

See them, sitting there, smug. Glowing, alien.

Obviously a Dalek's a dangerous beast, even when they appear to have had their deathray and plunger-thing removed, as these specimens had, so I sauntered quickly past them and to an elderly eccentric lady librarian, as they all should be***.

"Hi, I've not got my card on me, but..."

"We can't help you."

"I'm sorry. Since the machines came in, we can't look you up anymore."

"Oh. Can I return these books?"

"At the machine." **

As I left, she grabbed my arm, looked deep into my eyes and whispered horsely "Help us! Please help us! They won't let us leave!"

She wasn't there next time I visited.

Bloody Daleks.

HAIR UPDATE: Because Rob asked for it, and you should never, ever ask me for anything, for I am likely to do it. Currently three and a half centimeteres long, with large patches of grey. So now you know.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this has been my most pointless blog post ever. Hurrah.

* Yes, genuinely.

** The machine recognises books on sight. Machines should not have knowledge of this sort.

*** I am a libraryman, obviosuly.