Me and You and Everyone We Know

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) Miranda July

Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July, centers on the blossoming romantic relationship between Christine and Richard, while supporting characters try to connect with one another in surprising ways. They each push the boundaries of what is expected, and are tied together by their search for intimacy. Some gender issues the film deals with include masculine and feminine stereotypes and performative sexuality.

Richard works as a shoe salesman and is struggling as a newly single father of two boys. The character resists gender stereotypes by being emotive and openly vulnerable with Christine and others. Music, lighting and color work to identify Richard as unique in a number of ways. The pink shoes which Christine chooses, and which represent their relationship, are first seen settled upon a table display, which is otherwise beige. She writes “ME” and “YOU” on each of the two feet, and films them doing a dance, coming together tentatively, and drawing apart. In another scene, the set is very dark, and only Richard is spotlighted. At the same time, Richard’s character embraces some masculine stereotypes. Former wife Pam chastises him when he forgets to collect their son Robby from school, putting him in danger. He pays little attention to household chores or meal preparation, serving the children cereal for dinner as an afterthought. Pam has to intervene when Robby is frightened by an unknown noise because Richard is impatient and unable to comfort him.

Christine assertively pursues Richard, and seems to be motivated by her own desire for him, rather than by trying to attract him to her. She plays with gender in her performance art, trying on feminine and masculine voices, and relationship roles. When Richard seems repelled by her pursuit of him, she is undaunted, continuing to seek him out. She behaves in a way that is vulnerable, like Richard, but her demeanor suggests that she is at ease with her sexuality, in contrast with some of the other characters.

In one part of the film, Richard is puzzled by Pam’s nightgown, which is a list of affirmative words she enjoys reading to herself in the mirror. “I used to hate that nightgown. Other people have to look at it, but they can’t read it.” He has trouble understanding that Pam needs to reassure herself that she is “worthwhile” or “wonderful.” The gown represents the tension between trying to attract others and cultivating a solid sense of self.

For two young girls in the neighborhood, sexuality is all about appealing to others. They lie about their age and flirt with an adult man who responds by sticking sexually explicit messages to his window, inviting them in. They are concerned about their sexual skills and use Richard and Pam’s older son Peter to “practice.” Still, they feel insecure about their ability to please sexually, and seem completely out of touch with their own desires. It is a relief when the man seems frightened, hiding from the girls when they finally knock on his door. They run away, looking like gleeful children, despite their tight clothing and heavy make-up.

Other interesting characters populate Me and You and Everyone We Know, including a young girl who works dutifully to fill her hope chest, and Peter’s six year-old brother Robby, who unknowingly pursues a sexual relationship online. July uses the character of Christine to represent a version of femininity which is self-aware and grounded in her pursuit of pleasure and happiness. The girls have yet to cultivate the sense of self-worth which Pam seems to be working on and Christine has nearly mastered. Richard is struggling to make a real connection with his boys, but it is when he resists stereotypical gender norms that he is most appealing.

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The Abject and American Psycho

Barbara Creed makes use of Kristeva’s concept of the abject in her 1986 essay “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” This complex theory of the abject relates to human boundaries in which a viewer may identify elements of horror as “not me” (Chaudhuri 93). The character of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho can be viewed in relation to the concept of the abject, both in the way that he experiences the world, and in the way that the eye of the viewer is encouraged to relate to the horrors presented. Bateman is easily identified by the audience as “not me,” a twisted embodiment of 1980s yuppie culture who is neither complex nor sympathetic. At the same time, Bateman relates to his world as abject, desperate to “fit in,” yet pathetically unable to distinguish himself from the many businessmen like him. While Harron portrays Bateman as a killer of men and women alike, women’s bodies in particular are on sexual display, subjected to a degree of degradation and torture that is unique to them. Creed focuses on the conception of the maternal as abject, in which the feminine in patriarchal culture is defined as the other, along with added concepts derived from religious taboos including menstruation and other bodily fluids, death and decay (Chaudhuri 93). She argues that in horror, there is a perverse pleasure and catharsis for the viewer in experiencing and rejecting from the self the abject (Thornham 253). Feminist film theory suggests that audiences more easily relate to feminine rather than masculine bodies as abject, the use of graphic violent imagery involving those bodies creating the cathartic relief of “not me.” The violence on display in Harron’s film adaptation of American Psycho uses primarily female bodies to illustrate the monstrous aspects of Bateman’s character.

From early scenes of American Psycho, the audience is treated to repeated assurances that Bateman is “not me.” His humanity is undermined continually through the use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces which draw attention to his deep-seated vanity and lack of substance. The character represents the shallow culture which is the true subject of the film. While Bateman has achieved physical perfection and mastery of the material world, he is profoundly threatened that others might possess more of what he craves. The use of masking creates a barrier between Bateman’s outer persona and his inner monstrosity. As his inner dialogue details his outrageously expensive and ridiculous skin care regimen, Bateman tells the audience, “I am simply. Not. There.” In several scenes, the focal point is his image reflected on mirrored surfaces, reminding the viewer that he is flat, without humanity, completely detached. Often the face of Bateman is distorted or representing his dual role of murderer/businessman. His face can be seen reflected in a taxi window with a dark shadow surrounding an illuminated profile, or shifting from one profile shot to another, splattered with blood, or clean. He literally peels a facial mask away to reveal his empty underpinnings and makes reference to the “mask of sanity” which he feels is slipping away as he cultivates the perfect suntan.

Bateman seeks validation that he is the ultimate embodiment of success, which is related to his material rewards, including the fantasy that he is able to possess women, and literally discard those he deems worthless. He relates to his world as abject, telling one victim that he simply doesn’t relate to him before brutally killing him. Shots of Bateman are frequently followed by or connected to those of towering buildings in which he does business. The uniformity of the buildings and their endless rows of windows reflect Bateman’s inability to distinguish himself from Marcus Halberstram or any number of designer-clad businessmen at Pierce and Pierce. Women are reinforced continually as other, in a business world in which women are absent from the upper levels of corporate culture. Awkward placement of the women characters within the frame highlight his inability to relate to them as fellow human beings. At times Bateman’s rage is directed toward the economically disadvantaged, who he may view as more easily disposed of. He feels entitled to the use of women in exchange for money, which he has in abundance, and uses to garner attention and to manipulate others. He pursues a relationship with Courtney who is “almost perfect looking,” as a way to compete with his colleague who plans to marry her. His own fiancé is hopelessly shallow but has the correct physical characteristics to earn Bateman his desired status. The most brutal scenes in the film involve his interaction with two prostitutes, one of which is so heartbreakingly desperate for money that she knowingly risks her safety to interact with him a second time.

Creed suggests that audiences relate to the abject in ways which are consistent with patriarchal gender norms. American Psycho displays classic elements of the abject throughout in its depiction of female bodies. Feminist film theorist Linda Williams argues that “women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (Thornham 270). Harron uses female bodies to illuminate the monstrous aspect of Bateman. Some of the most powerful moments of horror include focused shots of female faces that wither in fear, fascination or disgust with the character of Bateman. In one important scene, Jean, Bateman’s secretary is shot from below, her face changing from fearful curiosity as she pours over his date book to profound shock, horror and misery. The images she discovers relate closely to Creed’s ideas about abjection in horror. Highly feminine bodies are on display, breasts and vulvas are very stylized, revealing gaping vaginal wounds, disembodied legs in fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes. Blood, weaponry and objects used to penetrate female bodies are mingled with images of toilets and corpses. This kind of imagery is what Creed identifies as “abjection at work,” allowing audiences to derive cathartic satisfaction through viewing images of utter horror, while comforted by the separation from it (Thornham 253).  Creed makes important note that feminine bodies should not be viewed as naturally abject, but that this is a function of a culture of gender-bias in which women have come to embody the other. Audiences expect and are rewarded with continual images of the degradation and torture of feminine bodies.

American Psycho contains mostly implied gore, and Bateman’s murderous fantasies are directed both at peers, including Paul, and those he views as disposable, such as Christie. The moments in which the audience has the most visible access to Bateman’s monstrosity are illustrated through the violence he enacts upon his female victims. His hatred of women is apparent in his fantasises involving mutilation and torture, which are repeatedly intermingled with sexual acts. The character “has it all,” including the ability to use and dispose of others, a commentary on yuppie culture. The director’s choices validate Creed’s assertion that women are closely associated with abjection, and that an unnatural association exists between feminine bodies and human monstrosity and terror. Harron allows the audience to be frightened by, but also to view Bateman as pathetic and laughable. Much controversy surrounded the publication of the Easton Ellis novel as well as the film, one question of interest to the viewer, is why Bateman seems to revel so completely in the sexualized torture of feminine bodies, and why it seems that such imagery is more palatable to audiences.

Works Cited

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. 2000. DVD.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa De Lauretis, Barbara Creed. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Thornham, Sue. Feminist Film Theory: a Reader. New York: New York Univ., 2006. Print.

The Virgin Suicides and the Inscrutability of Girls

The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sofia Coppola

In The Virgin Suicides, the brief lives of five sisters are examined from the perspective of a group of worshipful neighborhood boys. The story itself is more about the frustration the men feel reflecting back on their childhood that they were unable to unlock the mystery of why these young women would end their own lives. Visually, the film is hazy, muted colors create a seamless connection between the girls themselves and their subdued home environment where they spend much of their time. The audience is left to wonder about the actual substance of the girls, for the boys, the lack of which seems only to add to their allure.

On its surface, the story seems to be about the lives of the girls, rather than an unreliable telling of their experiences through the lens of neighborhood boys, who have romanticized them to an extreme. The narrative voice over tells the story with wonder and amazement, “No one could understand how Mr. Lisbon and Mrs. Lisbon…could produce such beautiful creatures.” Immediately, the girls are set up as slightly unreal, coming into sight one after the other, sunlight glistening on their blonde hair. Each of the girls successfully embodies a particular beauty ideal of the 1970s.

Visual elements serve as reminders that this story is not intended to reveal the inner lives of the Lisbon girls, but to support the male narrator’s recollection of their adolescent fascination with them. As the boys pour over Celia’s diary, looking for clues to explain her tragic suicide, a montage reminiscent of a shampoo advertisement of the day displays the girls lounging in a field of flowers, light again, glimmering off of their hair. They smile and jump and play as if they have not a care in the world. Later, the boys place the girls in a vacation sequence in which they appear, content and perfectly beautiful. The narrator remarks, “We knew that they knew everything about us, and that we couldn’t fathom them at all.” The Lisbon girls are again set up as wholly different beings, impossible for mere boys to understand. The underlying confusion seems to be that due to their utter desirability, surely they must be happy? For whatever else might a young woman want?

What little is revealed about their inner selves suggests that they suffer exceedingly sheltered lives, and that their perceived options are limited. Lux, who is the most fully developed character, expresses herself primarily through her sexuality. She seems to find little joy in it, however, and is harshly punished for stepping out of line. Her character seems the most alive upon first attracting the attentions of Trip, “you are a stone fox,” and leading up to and attending the big dance. While the family unit suffocates them in a number of ways, the outside world suffocates them as well, imposing a myriad of expectations upon them as “beautiful creatures.”

The audience is left to wonder, with these flatly depicted and tragic characters, if the reality of their lives was in fact more complicated than these boys are able to grasp. In this way, Coppola says something subtle and interesting about gender. The young boys’ fascination with the girls and utter inability to comprehend them changes not a bit between the adolescence which is depicted onscreen and the representation of adulthood which is conveyed through the narration.

On Blood and Donuts

Blood & Donuts (1995) Holly Dale — Beware, this post contains spoilers!

“Underneath, this [Blood & Donuts] is a very tender story about trading in loneliness for friendship. It’s not unlike the documentaries myself and Janis Cole made where all the characters may seem like antiheroes. In Hookers on Davie, Michelle, who is an outrageous drag queen that is half woman, half man, inside is a very warm and wonderful human being. Thematically, I think Blood & Donuts is in keeping with the work I’ve always done, trying to dispel stereotypes.”
Holly Dale

The 1995 film Blood and Donuts, directed by Holly Dale, departs from conventional stereotypes common to horror and black comedy. It works to challenge typical representations of gender in important ways through its characters.

The character of Boya struggles with his existence as a vampire. When humans land on the moon, Boya withdraws from the world. Awoken by a stray golf ball, twenty-five years later, he continues to keep the moon-like object nearby throughout the film. Unlike many vampire characters, Boya is awkward and uncomfortable with his identity. He chooses not to drink human blood, but to live off of the blood of animals. He mourns the people he loves, agonizing over their mortality, but is unwilling to turn them.

In an early scene, Boya encounters Earl, a cabdriver in trouble with a group of local mafia. Boya is teary-eyed and emotional, and Earl comments, “Guys got a thing about crying…my dog died,” and summons up some tears of his own. This scene in which two men, nearly strangers, cry together is an unusual one. Earl is immediately willing to be vulnerable with Boya, while seeming aware of the strangeness of the exchange. Dale portrays two male characters that make an immediate emotional connection that remains strong throughout the film.

A local donut shop is a primary setting, where the audience is introduced to the character of Molly, who is comfortable in her job, even when she encounters “tough guys,” Pierce and Axel, who repeatedly terrorize Earl. Earl worries about Molly being “unprotected,” but Molly is confident, occasionally wielding a baseball bat and is backed up by her male boss. Several times in the film Molly is threatened by the two criminals, but holds a steady gaze and a confident posture. The camera tends to focus on Molly’s face and eyes, absent are any gratuitous shots of her body, common to mainstream horror.

Boya is attracted to Molly, but is reluctant to pursue her, partly due to concern for Earl’s possible feelings. In a particularly unusual scene of sexuality, Boya lies in the bath, intensely fantasizing about Molly (this film is tagged “psychic rape” on imdb). Molly appears to be sleeping and is woken up by a dream-like sexual encounter with Boya. Interesting is that while Boya is quite exposed, nude in the murky bathwater, Molly wears a heavy t-shirt and is dimly lit, partially covered in bed sheets. Often in scenes of this type, particularly in horror, women’s bodies are exposed, but here the portrayal of Molly is more character-focused, her body is not used for the titillation of the audience. If any character is used in this way, it would be that of Boya, who walks nude to the window and stares out longingly. It is troubling to the viewer that this is not clearly a consensual encounter. It might be interpreted that Molly invites the encounter, but later she refers to it as a “bad dream,” and is seen researching Shamanism, wondering aloud if it is possible that Boya indeed visited her in her sleep. It is notable in this scene as well that Boya drops the golf ball as though letting go momentarily of his identity as a vampire and allowing himself to feel human.

Conventional standards of masculinity are exemplified by the crime lord Stephen, played by David Cronenberg, and his two assistants. In one scene, Stephen literally uses his boot to “make a mark,” comparing it to Axel’s athletic shoe, which leaves a mere scuff. Stephen and Pierce compete for dominance of both Axel and the neighborhood. The three express little sign of emotion throughout the film, in sharp contrast to the sensitive Boya. Ultimately, Stephen “wins” the competition for power between the three criminals, but Boya clearly is the most physically imposing and powerful character, despite his less stereotypically masculine demeanor.

Rita, Boya’s former lover before his long slumber, is angry with him for refusing to turn her, and struggles with aging. Connected to him thorough his bite, Rita longs to be immortal and is deeply angered that he robbed her of the possibility of eternal youth. She envies Molly’s beauty and tries to scare her away from Boya. In one of the few gory scenes of the film, Rita confronts and stakes Boya, failing to kill him. This scene is of interest because rather than focusing on her failed romance, Rita is fixated on the lost dream of immortality. She is aggressively angry with the former object of her affection. Boya agonizes over his feelings for Rita, which he feels being reflected in his developing love for Molly. He is troubled by the burden he places on them both, and humanity in general.

In the ending scene, Molly makes use of the Automotive Repair Handbook she studies earlier in the film to revive Earl. Boya is beside himself, feeling responsible for his death in a final altercation with the criminals in which he kills Stephen to protect Earl. Molly magically brings Earl back from the dead, making use of jumper cables and donuts (!). Boya decides to end his existence, facing the sun, and presumably the friendship between Molly and Earl survives. The ending is unusual in that Molly’s character remains level-headed and practical, driving the action of the film, while Boya expresses deep anguish and displays a fear of the mortality of others.

Dale’s film comments on the male gaze and gender roles by at times focusing on the physicality of Boya while presenting Molly as a fully developed and fully dressed character. She confronts gender stereotypes with Molly who is an avid reader, both physically and intellectually competent. Boya maintains his physical prowess while being emotive and unafraid to express his affection for Earl, several times touching him tenderly. She successfully defies some of the conventions of horror with this character-driven film.