Posts tagged ‘diana wynne jones’

Wonder Woman – in which there is much (more) ranting

Dear DC Animated Universe People, I am going to be very mean now. And the reason I am going to do this is because I watched your Wonder Woman film. There was nothing wrong with the plot or the story, so you can stop worrying. What did annoy me greatly was the women in your film, which is clearly not something that you’re very fussed about. But if you’re feeling low and sensitive, and easily-upset today I suggest you not read any further.  If you try to sue me I will claim that my mind is unhinged.

I’ve always been a little iffy about Wonder Woman. I suspect everyone is. As the major female character in DC, WW is thoroughly weighed down by the need to be every kind of hero for every kind of woman, and every kind of man. And as if that’s not enough, she also needs to be a every kind of heroine, just in case we manage to forget for an entire second that she’s, y’know, a woman.

The distinction between a hero and a heroine, in my opinion, is a narrative one: the hero is the person who is making the journey; the heroine is the person who inspires the hero to make and complete that journey: sometimes it’s waiting at the end of the maze, sometimes back at home, sometimes it travels with the hero providing sympathy, food, advice, weapons, clues, inspiration, and generally being helpful. Please note that the hero isn’t necessarily a man, just as the heroine isn’t always a girl.  This is why when they are not attached to a specific character, I am calling them both “it”.

In Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, the strands of hero and heroine are thoroughly mixed up. The story is told from Sophie’s point of view, and the eccentric Howl functions both as the person she aspires to be, as well as the person she aspires to be with. Howl is written as nice-looking, and as conscious of the fact: Sophie has been aged into a small, round, shapeless person, who keeps house of Howl. Howl is n full control of his (pretty impressive) magic powers;  Sophie (SPOILER!) isn’t even aware she has them, but acts, anyway, with compassion, honesty, and loyalty. Both Howl and Sophie, therefore, give each other something to aspire to. And both of them sustain each other with advice, jokes, food and shelter.

Wonder Woman, unfortunately, isn’t allowed to do something as simple and obvious as this. She is both the ideal woman Steve Trevor aspires to be with, as well as the person who must find and destroy the bad guy, with Trevor’s misogynistic nagging as her only support.  No one ever asks Batman to be Boy Scout and Dark-and-Angsty and Pointy-Boots-Barbie at the same time. But Wonder Woman is so busy being everything everyone in DC has ever expected of a superhero, PLUS bludgeoning the reader’s eyeballs with her breasts and boots (“She is a woman with a lasso! We are Progressive! Fetish Ahoy!” DC incoherently shrieks in every frame), that she has no time left in which to even create an archetype for herself, let alone the option to be one actual person. Not surprisingly she is a black hole of character suckitude.

Even on good days, DC isn’t terribly good at women. But they have outdone themselves this time. The Amazons are all little puppets with labels saying cheap things like “Butch!” “Bookish!” “Woman Scorned!” “Bitter Spinster!” Note to DC: The Amazons are an entire society of warrior women. Ergo: a) they will all be built differently from each other b) they are terribly likely to be muscular. Not necessarily all bulked-up, as some of them will be lean and sinewy instead. And it’s perfectly all right if some of them are stout, or short, or wiry-looking. Using a single template-body for an entire people is stupid. At one point the Amazon army is actually described as “supermodels in armour.” (probably by Steve Trevor but I lack the courage to check) I nearly stabbed myself in the eye with a blunt pencil. If you KNOW that they look like clothes hangers rather than warriors then why did you DRAW them like that in the first place? I honestly prefer the giant-breasted Diana in some of the comics – at least she has some muscle. This lot looks like they don’t even have bones.

As with most DC animated films, the backgrounds and battles are beautiful. Lovely colours, nice movements, some exciting fights, a dragon – all good things.

The film tries terribly hard to give Wonder Woman some character by making her a lot harder and more steely than she is usually written, which I like in theory. (I’ve always found it a bit silly when the comics try to convince me that a) Diana is a Warrior and that b) Diana is this super compassionate pacifist Mother Teresa figure and c) Diana is a supermodel. Stick to one archetype DC morons.) I was sort of charmed by her teaching a little girl how to injure her playmates with a sword. It was wrongheaded, yes, but it was one of the few “Diana-is-an-Amazon-and-is-therefore-puzzled-by-Man’s-World” moments that rang true for me. Also endearing was when I noticed she was fighting barefoot in an alley. Clearly someone on the writing team has tried throwing a kick in giant heels, I thought.

But these moments are soon crushed by the demands of the idiot plot: Diana needs to kill Ares, and Diana needs to kiss Steve Trevor. And so all Diana’s potential complexities of motive and selfhood are just ignored while she does the important business of bashing and making out. In the end, while Diana had to become this has-car-doors-opened-for-her girl, Trevor gets away with being exactly the same cheerful misogynist he is to begin with. He fell for Diana because she has a nice rack, and he continues to hang out with her for that exact reason.

There’re frequent and gross shots of the Amazons’ body parts in battle. Women dying in battle should not be about sex. No one dying in battle should be about sex. (And this applies to pretty much any fight sequence you have ever had, DC). Trevor, of course, does exactly this: “That was hot!” he leers as Diana finishes a fierce fight. Not strong, not quick, not skillful, not smart, not saving-his-life-awesome. Hot.


By the time the film ended and Diana had left her island (Which DC is determined to tell us full of bitter spinsters. Trevor actually calls it “chastity belt island” at one point. Diana looks lovelorn. I looked nauseous.) to stay with gross Trevor carry out her Mission of Peace, I was beginning to think she deserved him. Clearly this particular WW wants what every woman ought – in DC’s opinion – to want: a self-absorbed man to condescend to her constantly.

That this is the lot which gave us Harley and Ivy, high on my list of comfort TV (Also on the list:  Jeeves and Wooster, Monty Python, lots  more of this particular animated Batman, most of Buffy, Season 1 of Veronica Mars, some of Firefly, Merlin, Season 1 of the new Dr Who, some Arrested Development) makes me very sad indeed.


December 17, 2009 at 10:24 am 2 comments

anime and i: in which miyazaki makes me a nicer person

I just re-watched Miyazaki’s version of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and it’s churning up this strange and unwilling fondness for anime in me. (It did the first time too, but I dismissed it as an aberration.) Even though Miyazaki changed vast chunks of the plot, even though the characters have the giant eyes and tiny noses of anime that normally annoy me so much, and even though strange airships blimped around the entire time, I can think of few other book-based films which I actually liked enough to watch again. Certainly no comic or fantasy-based film has ever left me anything except indignant and nit-picking: there were always a million small things, and often some huge things, that rang clangily hollow. The only exception (Even movie-Watchmen‘s slavish adherence to all things except the giant squid seemed, somehow, to lack the intense hysteria of the comic) is Sin City, which exactly replicated the filthy noir quality that I loved in the comics, where what you couldn’t see in the heavy darkness loomed large over what you did see.

As with Sin City, the implication by enshrouding that there is an entire world that is new and strange to the reader seems to work very neatly in Howl’s Moving Castle. What happens, I suspect, is that animation has an abstract quality that makes it so much easier to watch and re-imagine in the watching than an actual film. So even though Calcifer the fire demon (for instance) didn’t look like the Calcifer in my head, he was an excellent abstract of said Calcifer-in-my-head.

The whole realism thing is, of course, inherent to (non-cartoon) cinema, and perhaps I should stop watching altogether. Films are obsessed with maintaining the appearance of reality*. Any self-respecting film would try to show you what a Calcifer would look like if Calcifers existed in our world, bound by its optical laws. Except, in doing so, it misses the entire point of fantasy which is this: Calcifer does not and cannot exist in our reality. This is why he is a fantastic character. The only place where Calcifer exists and should exist, is elsewhere. This is why however magnificent FilmAslan is, he is still just a regular, if largeish lion, prancing around on screen. In making him realistic, most of the abstract qualities that hover around BookAslan (Aslan as stand-in for god, Aslan as inherently just, and Aslan as inherently unknowable) are obliged to go away, because there is no visual way to portray them realistically, and even swelling orchestral soundtracks can only do so much. Animation is, for me, particularly suited for rendering fantasy, because of the fact that it works with symbols and metaphors, rather than representations of reality: it gives you rough ideas, but the actual work happens in your head – as it should, to be truly fantastic.

Anyway. Back to Miyazaki. The characters are all very nicely distinguished, in the way they speak and move and hold themselves. Howl himself was completely unlike the way I’d imagined him, with his strange air of vulnerability. I liked, too, the way that it was his body that was the site of desire, not hers: both YoungSophie and OldSophie are more or less shapeless, wrapped up in stout shoes, layers of petticoats and voluminous gowns, while Howl’s body is depicted in slim, delicate lines. It’s Howl who is so obsessed with his own attractiveness that he sobs himself into a pool of green snot when his hair turns orange; later, he wanders around in a towel that slips coyly off, and it’s Sophie who determinedly does not to ogle. Howl’s vulnerability is constantly in play, in his repeated exhaustion, and the increasing frailty of his bird-form. In contrast, Sophie, even when aged, is satisfyingly solid. She is bursting with determination and stamina: she stomps determinedly up the very long and steep palace steps carrying a dog, even taking the trouble to pep-talk the Witch of the Waste through the climb; she cleans constantly, and she looks after all the other characters. Though Sophie’s degree of agedness careens wildly, and though she is voiced by two separate actresses (one for young and one for old Sophie) she is somehow tangibly always the same person: its her persistent vitality that holds the whole story together.

The war scenes combine just the right amount of realism (the blimps and the images of burning buildings are realistic in content, though not in form) and pure comic-ness (by comic-ness I do not mean comedy: I mean the quality of being a comic) as when the blimps have wings and let loose strange annoying giant insects, along with their bombs. The fact that none of this is actually in the book, made little difference: it is still a beautiful, intuitive and thoroughly original film which somehow manages to be Howl’s Moving Castle, in addition to all the other things it is.

So yes, I take back many of the uncharitable things I may have said about anime in the not-so-distant past. It can pretend to be as cutesy as it wants:  now that I know that it’s secretly all sharp steel and strange flourishes underneath, I won’t be fooled again. Sometimes, anyway.

*Even Bunuel and co could only manage to show us what would happen if our reality was a bit more fluid and random than it is. It was still, quite clearly, our reality – our pebbles and eyes and people and scorpions. Sometimes dreamlike, but never entirely other.

November 5, 2009 at 12:08 pm 4 comments

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