Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Today's lesson: one can take offense even when no one means to give it.

When I finished tallying up the votes for Best Lead Performance (Female), I knew the winner would be surprising to many people out there, and as such, would spur a great deal of discussion. However, I was unprepared for the criticism incurred by the original image that accompanied the award. Just hours after I announced the awarding of the Muriel to Carice Van Houten in Black Book, over at Craig Kennedy’s blog Living in Cinema, commenter “Joel” took me to task for my choice of image to accompany the announcement. In Joel’s words:

I also have to mention that I really question the choice of that main image for Black Book. On one hand, it highlights an important aspect of the main character’s struggle throughout the film, on the other it’s an extremely suggestive image that appears to exploit Van Houten’s sexuality as depicted in the film. Out of context, it places Carice Van Houten’s performance in an awkward light.

Surely there was more to her performance than simply being a sexual object for domineering, potentially life-threatening men? I’m not suggesting sexism here so much as that the choice of image seems to reflect that most critics (I’m making no gender bias here) have focused much of their attention on the more purile aspects of Van Houten’s performance. I’ve read many mentions of the indignities her character suffers throughout the movie, and nearly every review makes special mention of the scene where she must dye her pubic hair to gain the Nazi’s trust without alerting them to her ethnicity. It’s a striking moment sure, but it’s curious that the sexuality of the role seems to dominate many reviews when it’s only an aspect of the performance.

Perhaps I should explain why I ended up picking that image in the first place. For some reason, I have a hard time with the photos I try to upload to the official Muriel Awards web site. I don’t know why, but many of the images I upload to the site end up looking blocky and pixilated when expanded to the desired width, and this won’t do on a site that’s trying to look relatively professional. Simply put, my options were more limited than I would have liked. I ended up trying a number of images of Van Houten, and this was one of the few that actually came out looking good.

The other reason behind my decision has to do with the way the image works in the film. Being a Paul Verhoeven film, sexuality is an important aspect of Rachel/Ellis’ character, in particular the way she uses it in relation to the Nazis. Verhoeven will never be confused for a feminist, but the film takes place in pre-feminist times, and as such one of the few weapons the character has is what used to be quaintly referred to as her “feminine wiles.” The Nazi way of life was about power, and the only way she could work her way in was by playing the role of a sexually submissive woman, while maintaining resolve to see her mission through. That’s the message I get from that still- she’s taken the submissive position, but there’s a steeliness to her eyes that tells a different tale.

Yet the point Joel makes about context is important here. Those who know what’s going on can see the iron will behind her expression, but those who don’t only see a nubile naked woman prostrating herself before a man. In a way, this is typical of Verhoeven’s filmmaking style- by confronting us with questionable images, he forces us to confront how we feel about them and ask ourselves why they trouble us so. Joel continues:

It makes me wonder if critics were more inspired by the extremes of repeated debasement levied upon her character as opposed to the depths of her actual performance? These things stand out, but they aren’t the mainstays of acting.

For my part, the aforementioned indignities comprised only a small part of my appreciation for the performance. Much more interesting to me were the moments in which she had to think on her feet in difficult situations. I keep coming back to that small bit in the party scene, in which she’s onstage singing to the crowd, and the despicable Nazi officer Franken cuddles up behind her and begins whistling along. She recoils just the tiniest bit, then a sultry smile spreads across her face as she continues the song. Moments like this are typical of the character, and I daresay of anyone in a similar situation to her, male or female.

Luckily for me, today I was able to find an image (one that wasn’t there when last I looked) from this very scene that actually worked nicely on the Muriels site, so I’ve replaced the offending picture with the one you see now. I think it works just as well for those who’ve seen the film, with the added bonus of playing up the fact that, yes, Van Houten did all her own singing (take THAT, Marion Cotillard). Some might wonder why I didn’t fight the criticism and stick to my guns, but at this point, I think the most important thing is to keep the Muriels fun and free of controversy. If we want to increase our visibility on the Web, we must makes as many friends as we can, and something as insignificant as a picture is small potatoes compared to the goodwill that could be lost should enough people be offended by it.

Thanks for understanding. Two more days of awards, and miles to go before Muriel sleeps.


Craig Kennedy said...

Paul, I support the change you've made, but I also supported the original image you went with.

How's that for wishy washy?

It's impossible to consider the film without considering the sexuality within it, so the original image is perfectly appropriate. On the other hand, as I said to Joel I worried about my own overemphasis on what amounts to one aspect of the film.

However, that's on me, not you.

Van Houten was one of my own picks so obviously I'm happy to see she came in first. It also doesn't surprise me her win stirred up some controversy. I don't think Verhoeven would have it any other way.

Paul C. said...

My biggest concern when making this change was the future of the Muriels as a whole. If it was just something I was involved in, I wouldn't have bothered about the criticism. But too many people take part in and/or enjoy the Muriels for me to sow ill will over something like a photograph, which in the bigger scheme of things is pretty insignificant. If we want the Muriels to continue to thrive in years to come, better to make small concessions now, so long as they don't torpedo any integrity they have. And yeah, I liked the photograph too, but it's not just about it.

James said...

I didn't see the film, so I admit a potential lack of context, but I found the picture eye-catching but not offensive. I did consider the exact meaning of the choice, be it to highlight Van Houten's sexually charged performance, because it's an aesthetically relevant picture, or just because people like looking at hot naked chicks. But that replacement pic is pretty damn effective, the swastika in the background likely saying at least as much as the other picture at a glance about the film and performance.

Mark Pfeiffer said...

I think you did the right thing in changing it. If you don't know the context, it looks exploitive, and if you do know the context, I'm not sure that it's the ideal way of representing a performance that was more than the sex scenes.

I'm pleasantly surprised she won, especially since she didn't get anywhere in the other groups in which I voted.

Craig Kennedy said...

Your concern and "better safe than sorry" approach in this case is admirable Paul and it bodes well for the future of the Muriels.

Andrew Bemis said...

I understand your choce to change the image, and the new one is also effective. However, I must say that I preferred the original. You offer plenty of context with Dennis' write-up, the image complimenting his description of Ellis as "the perfect embodiment of perversely powerful sexuality." It's a charged image from an equally provocative movie, and I frankly find the argument against it a bit sanctimonious.

I admire your tact and the new image is potent as well. That said, I hope this doesn't signal the end of the occasional cheekiness around here. Even the best film writers too often feign objective detachment when it comes to sex in cinema, and acknowledging nudity as one of the basic aesthetic pleasures of moviegoing goes a long way to make your work more personal and, therefore, more meaningful.

Paul C. said...

Oh no, the cheekiness will continue unabated, but only in non-Muriels posts. As I said before, the Muriels are something bigger than myself, so I have to make a few concessions that I normally wouldn't bother making.