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Sucker Punch and Death of the Author

2012/05/01

I actually started this next piece quite a while back, then got distracted by a long argument about sex work. I think it’s time to get back to it, especially since it ties into things I’ve already been writing about. So I’m finally addressing Sucker Punch, which is either an exploitation film or a commentary on them depending who you listen to. (This article doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve seen the movie. It’s also full of spoilers.) There seem to be five basic takes:

  1. It’s the panderingiest movie ever. It’s an excuse to put attractive young women in skimpy outfits and put them in situations that looks like video game cut scenes with a bit of a women in prison/brothel exploitation film between. It’s like they took a poll at Comic Con of what neckbeards wanted in a movie, then made that. It’s sexist and stupid.
  2. It’s the panderingiest movie ever. It’s an excuse to put attractive young women in skimpy outfits and put them in situations that looks like video game cut scenes with a bit of a women in prison/brothel exploitation film between. It’s like they took a poll of everything I wanted in a movie. then made that. It’s sexist and awesome!
  3. It really is just about how you can find freedom in your own mind. The sexist stuff was about an empowered sexuality in the level 2 fantasy as opposed to the exploitation in the real world, which was represented symbolically in the level 1 fantasy. Don’t try to read too much into it.
  4. It’s a criticism of exploitation and vapidity in geek films and how “empowerment” often amounts to an excuse to leer at half-dressed women. It’s saying that we as the audience aren’t any better than the step father in the real world or the customers of the club in the fantasy when we view women this way. True freedom can only come from ourselves, not be forced out of others.
  5. It tried to deep and smart and say stuff about how Hollywood views women and the nature of freedom, but failed and is a mish-mash of calculated commercialism and fortune cookie wisdom made by a guy who thinks that’s deep.

For further information, I suggest reading this review from Hope Lies at 24 Frames per Second, this one from The Onion AV Club and especially this Film School Rejects interview with Zack Snyder. I agree with interpretation 4, but I understand the first two takes are far more popular. I think what Zack Snyder did here is he tried to make a movie that was simultaneously an art house picture and an action blockbuster. He’s hardly the first person to do so. Movies like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon attempted this by having characters fight and talk about philosophy. I think Snyder’s approach in Sucker Punch is more akin Quentin Tarantino, where everything about the movie is done so deliberately that it’s making commentary through the process itself. This means that dialogue and plot take a more secondary role than in traditionally good movies.

Exploitation films in general are a contentious subject, especially the rape/revenge sub-genre on which it is loosely based. Some people see them as a story of women triumphing over patriarchal oppression. Another group, mostly correctly, I think, sees them as an excuse to show rape and violence in lurid detail. However, you can’t make accurate sweeping statements here. Movies are made by different people with different intentions. Sucker Punch differs from the usual bad examples in quite a few important ways. If you’ve taken any film theory classes, the lack of male gaze shots is one of the most telling. In a film where essentially all the women are running around in schoolgirl fetish outfits (or parodies thereof) for most of the running time, we get no slow pans from the feet to the face, close-ups of cleavage while women perform some task or anything of the like. There are several instances of power walks and unflinching walks, which are usually reserved for male power-fantasy heroes. I don’t think there’s a single shot of Baby Doll in the movie that would seem out-of-place if it were applied to a male martial-arts hero. I was rather annoyed by the animated prequel shorts, where the heroines barely appear, but every shot where they do is seen from between their legs or something.

Also telling is the lack of any real revenge resolution. While the movie seems to be heading toward a traditional resolution where some supporting characters are killed horribly, then the bad guys get theirs and whoever’s left get a happy ending, it snaps back and reminds us that all of this is a fantasy and gives us a far more ambiguous ending set in what is presumably the real world. Most reviews that speculate on it seem to think that this is the titular sucker punch. It goes out of its way to remind us on several occasions of our own position as an audience and of the artificiality of the whole proceeding. The opening of the movie is seen through a proscenium with silhouettes who are in front of you in the virtual audience across the bottom of the screen. In several places within the film, we are placed in an audience position looking at things happening on a stage. The level 2 fantasy sequences are so ludicrous, I can’t see how anyone would take them seriously. They make no effort to justify their existence and combine every trope they could think of, even ones that make no sense together. (Poe’s law comes into effect here.) None of the characters have anything like a real name. Sweet Pea has a line at one point which seems to addressed to the audience criticizing titillation over personal investment in Baby Doll’s dance (the level 2 fantasy for our perspective). It was pretty clear to me that the whole was criticizing a certain kind of escapism even as it promoted its own brand. It’s not just another retread of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but a reminder that things don’t actually work that way. The edifice of exploitation, where women are used for their sexuality and forced to put on a show to please loathsome men if a metaphor for the mainstream film industry.

While I thought this was pretty clear, lots of people didn’t. From looking around on Rotten Tomatoes, this accounts for 15% of the reviews, tops. This brings up another question: Why should Snyder’s intent matter? What’s the point of making a movie to criticize pigs who yell catcalls at women on ComicCon panels if they don’t even understand they are being criticized (and may even interpret it the opposite way and like it) and the only people who “get it” are film nerds who weren’t a part of the problem? This is a legitimate concern, which I will address in-depth in future articles, but the short answer is that this applies to pretty much everything to some degree. Every couple of years, someone tries to get Huckleberry Finn banned from a school library on the grounds that it’s racist for using the word “nigger” repeatedly. Defenders will argue this is meant to depict the realities of racism at the time and it’s actually about realizing that racism is all a pack of lies spread by repugnant people. (Which is oversimplifying, but no sense spending a bunch more space on a book you’re all familiar with.) The fact that a lot of people see this won’t make the objectors feel any better. There is no magic percentage of people buying any particular interpretation that can make it correct. To the people who like it, Sucker Punch a good film, and I think that that’s enough. I think part of the problem was that the MPAA forced a critical scene to be cut and the director’s cut would have gone over somewhat better, but an R-film would have made less money. I still harbor some suspicion that Showgirls is a brilliant social satire that somehow no one has managed to understand as of yet. How can we ever condemn anything in this case? That’s a tricky issue which I will address later.

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