Razer: Carol, Suffragette and insufferable, Oscar-bait 'Social Issues' movies

Just as it brings forth the need for sunburn lotion and family law, this season in Australia always offers us a cinematic pain. Summer is lousy with all the Social Issues waste the filmmaking community showers on us just in time for awards season. Works like Crash, Philadelphia or Million Dollar Baby are generally as unbearable as a day at a beach filled with drunk teens, as dry and uncomfortable as the menopause.

This, for aspiring screenwriters of award-winning liberal screen dramas, is the key to a gong: make your audience feel good by showing them how people who are not them are bad. See Dallas Buyers Club or Milk, both films that flagrantly rewrite real-life queer history and offer benefit to no one save for their stars, Matthew McConaughey and Sean Penn, who each received the traditional Oscar in the category of Some of My Best Friends Are Gay.

Oh, stop pretending you thought the movie Crash was rousing and meaningful. It was a wad of moralising cotton wool made specifically to insulate middle-class white cinema goers against the possibility of ever actually addressing the problem of racism in an intellectual, and therefore actually useful, way. FFS, Brendan Fraser did more realistic and culturally sensitive work in George of the Jungle. You hated it, I hated it and both of us would much rather watch a Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar film. Films, by the way, that do a much better job of interrogating the idea of race than this or Driving Miss Daisy or even Selma, which managed to take one of history’s most stirring revolutionaries and dip him in the saccharine juice they feed screenwriters in cages at the Hallmark Movie Network for Women.

If you want a decent biopic on a powerful black leader made for a powerfully critical black audience, go back to 1992 for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Which didn’t score well in that year’s awards season, probably because it didn’t serve to make already comfortable people feel comfortable about how much things had changed for the better.

Every so often, there is a major Issues film which manages to upturn the bucket of righteous liberal blarney. Together, works which deserve the “this film is important!” praise of craven reviewers form a slim list which includes Brokeback Mountain, All The President’s Men, Lee’s earlier work and possibly My Left Foot — I disqualify myself from evaluating Boys Don’t Cry because, like all persons who appreciate extreme physical beauty, I spent the entire movie screaming “KISS! KISS!” at Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank.

Another rare Issues flick that managed to do more than merely reassure its audience that they were SO much better than those other bigots was Todd Haynes’ obscenely beautiful Far From Heaven. In his disciplined mid-century portrait of sexuality, gender and race, Haynes doesn’t simply say “things were awful in the olden times”. Like Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, this anti-nostalgia prompts the viewer to acknowledge that the passage of decades is itself no guarantee that harmful social codes will dissolve. You leave Far From Heaven thinking: shit, we’re never freed from the society that forms us, and it’s foolish to think that we are.

Which is, peculiarly, the opposite of what Haynes’ disappointing new Oscar bet Carol achieves, bringing us up to date on this year’s (mercifully short) round of Issues films. If Carol, as film posters promise, is the “romance of the year”, then I guess a repressed, self-loathing handjob is what passes for romance in 2016. Goodness, this film could not be better looking or more expertly costumed, but Blanchett may as well just stand there in her vintage furs and say “I’ve touched a muff, now give me my Oscar”. It’s all very well and good to Tell Stories and shit, but when the characters who inhabit these stories are little more than sexualities in Dior, you wonder if (a) this sort of Hollywood embrace is not, in fact, a little bit bigoted and diminishing itself and (b) did Todd Haynes even read the book?

I would say that Best Picture hopeful Spotlight is to All The President’s Men as my Facebook feed is to the novels of Patricia Highsmith. But, I can’t say that. Nor can I say this is a tedious procedural for which Mark Ruffalo, who seems to have taken creative instruction from Jimmy Olsen, should be punished and not rewarded. This is a film about institutional child abuse and therefore Very Important, even if it actually very middling.

But I will say of the critically praised, if currently nomination-free, Suffragette: our foremothers did not throw themselves under horses in order that we take their history for a make-over.

This film has, as many Issues films do, very honourable intentions and its decision to move working class women to the centre of an account usually dominated by bluestockings means very well. But, the fact is, women’s suffragism was largely a bourgeois movement by both membership and intent. The right to the vote, also denied to many working class men fighting Britain’s wars, was never going to guarantee the right to fair labour, and this is a problem the film shoos away even as it ushers in a three-minute cameo by Meryl Streep as suffrage’s mother hen, Emmeline Pankhurst.

That Streep basically recycles her Iron Lady performance is appropriate. Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher shared a great love of colonial militarism and a radical distaste for leftist politics. Sure, Pankhurst was instrumental in securing women the vote, but she had also been pretty effective in stabilising her nation’s lethal class system. Women dead from dangerous labour conditions don’t vote. Nor, for that matter, do poor men slain defending empire.

But, this is the work of Inspiring Issues Cinema each time this year. These are closed works that offer the viewer no alternative but to be Uplifted By Stories of Courage. If you don’t like Suffragette, you’re a sexist and if you feel asleep during Carol, you’re obviously a homophobe.

It is an offence to liberty to critique such films! Even as they continue to offer us a comforting, counterfeit view of liberty that offends liberty itself.

37 responses to “Razer: Carol, Suffragette and insufferable, Oscar-bait 'Social Issues' movies

  1. Good on you Razer! Harold and Kumar brilliant! and let’s not forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as an invocation of wasted youth. Love it. God it feels better to have you say what I think.

  2. I always assume that the ‘Oscar buzz’ they talk of is the sound of the flies circling the films that are paced so slowly they are mistaken for being dead.

  3. Curious as to how you would read a movie like Django Unchained? I sort of read it as a white guy trying to give two fingers to the white establishment by making a film where the black guy & his girl were the sole survivors. It was probably a lot more than that, or possibly a lot less?

    1. Less.

      DU was was just his usual comedic sociopath hero slasher fare, but with southern racists this time instead of hitmen/yakuza/nazis/bounty-hunters. Tarentino doesn’t do depth and nor does he pretend to.

  4. Suffragette isn’t a great movie, it probably won’t win any awards, but it’s better than this dismissive review. Streep’s cameo was very brief, yes, so why focus on it instead of on several other good acting performances? Because that wouldn’t fit the negative mindset?

    1. Rudy. This wasn’t a film review. It was an article demonstrating what I believe to be the common tendency of western liberal film to show victory and struggle as flat entertainment. I believe some filmmakers genuinely do explore social issues well, and I have mentioned some of these in the post. I believe that Suffragette in particular did a very poor job of defining the problems endemic to the social class of women, and it is my view, as it is the view of many who have written on it. that this is a very revisionist film. The question “what is the vote expected to achieve” is never asked, much less is the view of many working class socialist women who actively opposed the vote at the time.
      So, even if all the performances were award-winning, this doesn’t impact my point which is: this is another well-meaning but deluded film about victory.

      1. Fascinating stuff. I don’t usually read the comments after the article/comment/review, here, there and other places (how much time is there!), but now may review that. Hey Guys ‘n Gals, what Helen (and others) do is comment. An opinion is an opinion. Full stop. A giver of an opinion is presumed, or at least allowed, to be opinionated. That’s the nature of an opinion, and journalism. What fascinates me is that, when you wind up someone’s spring, how loud the “boingggg!” can be. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Great article.

    I haven’t even seen Carol, and I got that the ‘handjob’ joke was a figurative statement about the quality of the film as a ‘romance’ and not an actual literal, hopelessly wrong statement about the sex scene.

    Far from telling Helen to actually watch the film (she did), seems like some of you guys need to attain high school level reading comprehension.

  6. Could not agree more, saccharine, comforting and assuaging is the common vein of so many of these films. An issue film should have one leaving the film angry or inspired to work for progress on the issue not self congratulatory they end up being totally meaningless works.

  7. I’ve seen both films and thoroughly enjoyed each. In particular I was looking forward to Carol, having read ‘The Price of Salt’ several years ago. Opinions are to be had and then owned, and I’ll own that.

    What would be wonderful though, particularly post Screen Australia launching their gender matters initiative, is to disrupt the illusion that a director conceives and makes a film. Carol was adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy, a long time friend of Patricia Highsmith. Nagy’s fear with this work was that it must be executed in a way her now departed friend would have approved of, or at least not hated. Nagy hopes she’s achieved that. To say it is a Todd Haynes film ignores the simple fact that without Nagy’s screenplay he would have been shooting blue sky (literally).

    To call this a ‘social issues’ film implies the same of Highsmith’s original text. I’m pretty sure that’s not why Highsmith wrote it in the first place. It’s considered her most autobiographical work – there was a ‘Carol’ in her life at one point, however briefly. It took the key creatives seven years to get this film produced and distributed . Very much a labour of love.

    1. I’m in agreement with you Sue. Don’t know Carol is even being considered as a “social issues” film. To me it was just a romantic film done really well.

  8. I actually thought that Suffragette did a reasonable job of placing the working class women front and centre. I left that film angry with a system that treated (and still treats) working women like that and inspired that any of those women were prepared to fight for a vote when they were living in grinding poverty and being touched up by the boss. Streep as Pankhurst was obviously of another class with the rounded vowels and I felt no empathy for her. My knowledge of suffragette history is ordinary, but surely it wasn’t just the wealthy women who made their voices heard?

      1. Quite so but that doesn’t diminish its significance. Many important social changes were begun by the middle classes – or the bourgeoisie if you will. Likewise reminding us that the “right to the vote… was never going to guarantee the right to fair labour” is as compelling an argument as telling Rosa Parks there’s more to civil rights than sitting at the front of the bus.

        1. Perhaps your understanding of civil rights is a little underdone. While bus segregation was one of many sites for protest, the movement was indivisible from the fight for better labour conditions. MLK was assassinated at a sanitation workers’ strike. He was killed advocating for workers’ rights. Read his letter from Birmingham Jail if you have not already. There, he rails against the hopes of moderate and middle class reformists. He absolutely saw this movement as many did: a fight for better pay and greater social equity.
          Of course segregation is ludicrous and that it could have been upheld in law or institutional practice now seems perverse. But, make no mistake: without working men and women whose dissatisfaction caused them to organise, there would have been no civil rights movement. It may have been a movement with some bourgeois leaders but this does not mean it was ever a chiefly bourgeois movement.
          Parks herself was, as you probably know, a labour organiser. She was a profoundly political person who worked for the NAACP. Her most famous action was strategic (inspired by that of a less media friendly teen called Claudette Colvin) and wasn’t spontaneous. That we remember Parks’ life work as seeking only to free up seats on buses is a very serious kind of revisionism. She wasn’t a moderate lady who just wanted people to be nice and understanding. She was a purposeful activist who was quite left-wing by today’s miserable standards.
          So, to imply, as you absolutely have, that civil rights had nothing to do with labour when the labour force was precisely the site from which most activists came and often the site where they protested, is a hasty or a convenient reading of history.
          I did not say that bourgeois protest movement were useless, you came to that conclusion. All I am saying is that it is as foolish to re-read women’s suffrage as a chiefly working class movement (and that is the implication of the film) as it is to presume that civil rights was a movement chiefly geared to the interests of a middle-class.
          Emmeline Pankhurst had some dreadful ideas. So did many advocates for women’s suffrage. There was great internal division and a good many women who left the movement to really engage with the question of labour which they reasonably felt was being left behind in the glory of “votes for women”. The division was so great, it happened even within Pankhurst’s own family. She excommunicated two of her daughters.
          To make a film about women’s suffrage with working class women at its centre and to make the claim that these women were acting in their own interests and to ignore the very extreme political divisions at the time is just pants. You can’t make a film about a working woman who wants better conditions then fail to address the existence of the trade union movement and expect to be taken seriously.
          This movie is fantasy. And it’s a fantasy to think of civil right as middle class.

  9. Helen – My #1 new year’s resolution is, like some low rent diceman, to state at the family dinner table “I’ve touched a muff, now give me my Oscar”, and then see if I get away with it. This will be one small step to raising the Issue of repression of the middle aged from making ludicrous/lubricious statements in inappropriate social settings. You may start work on the screenplay if you wish…

  10. “Don’t blush baby!” – Jen has a point Helen… it must be a pretty bad movie if a sex scene is mistaken for a “handjob”… the selection of which films are important seems to reflect a certain predilection for “the sex has to be right before a film is good!” Mind you, Billy the Fish’s acute observation of a cynic might suggest an exceptional and therefore repeatedly disappointed lover…of films.

  11. FYI the “hand job” you mention isn’t in the movie….did you actually watch ‘Carol?’ There was a scene in the screenplay but it was cut. When you base a judgement on a scene that wasn’t even in the actual film your opinion of the film isn’t very credible.

    1. I called that pompous screen sex a “handjob” for laughs. I am guilty of Sapphic bathos, but not of failing to see a film. Especially one I was really looking forward to enjoying.
      It’s fine to disagree with my assessment and I enjoy good comments that argue, say, with my assertion that this flick is flat liberal fetishism. But “you didn’t even see the film!” is not a good comment.
      Please come back and try again.

      1. Ah, so you decide to insult a reviewer for calling you out on something you wrote that was wrong.

        Try again Razer, perhaps with something approximating sincerity, though in your case you’ll have to fake it (badly, like all else you do)

        1. well, that escalated quickly.

          I don’t often agree with Helen, but in this case, I think she’s right, even if she clumsily worded it.

        2. Uni, what’s your damage? I saw the film, didn’t like it and made a disparaging gag about the sex.
          I think “handjob” is a funny word.

          1. How dare you demonise the word “handjob” for your own paltry amusement. This just proves your hatred of those of us who can’t ourelves perform handjobs – like, say, people with no arms, you dumb cow.

      1. I am sure this is intended to be a trenchant insult, Mark, and I’ve tried for several minutes to understand its gist. But teen idols and conspiracy theorists and a daddy reference have me deeply confused.

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