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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Sunday, July 09, 2017

In Defense of Not Liking the Wonder Woman Movie Quite As Much As Everyone Else (While Remaining a Feminist)

Recently, I’ve disagreed with a friend of a friend about Richard Brody’s review of Wonder Woman, and, by extension, about the film itself. I thought I’d make my case here.

This, I believe, is the passage at the heart of our disagreement:

“Jenkins displays Diana’s fighting in two main forms: bullets come toward her in extreme slow motion, and she swats them away with her armor; and she makes martial-arts leaps toward her enemies, which get slowed down mid-leap before resuming their natural speed.

“In the film’s handful (an unusually scant handful) of warfare scenes, Jenkins doesn’t offer many variations on these two fighting modes; her modesty of style isn’t quite a modest style, nor one of conspicuously aestheticized restraint, like that of Jim Jarmusch or Sofia Coppola. Rather, it’s a style that displays neither its passion nor its reserve, and comes close to the realistic style of no style, as if in fear that a heightened or aestheticized one would ultimately contradict the point of the film and serve as a glorification of the very violence that it repudiates. It’s a superhero film with almost no excess.

“Even though Diana’s own battle skills are the peg for the movie’s action (and her fierce emergence from a trench to take on the Germans in no man’s land is one of the movie’s signal moments of uninhibited martial glory), it’s the fighting done by Steve and his human cohorts—warriors who lack Diana’s superhuman skills and, as a result, have to deploy a wide and varied range of human wiles—offers more cinematic fodder for Jenkins’s imagination. The movie’s one great action moment is a scene that brings together Steve’s tactical insight and Diana’s mighty abilities. The Fervent Five pursue Ludendorff to the Belgian village of Veld; there, they and the villagers come under siege from a German sniper who’s holed up in the bell tower of a church, and Steve comes up with a plan. Using a detached car door, he, Sammy, and Charlie provide Diana with a launching pad to catapult her up to the tower. The resulting mayhem is instantaneous and sublime; it’s also the movie’s most ecstatic and tightly packed symbolic moment, the one that illuminated the entire viewing experience, retroactively and through the rest of the action.”

I don’t want to quote the other party to our discussion without permission, but if I understand correctly, she believed that Brody:

1. Expresses, here, a preference for the men’s action that is rooted in misogyny, and

2. Overlooks the gloriousness and feminist affirmational power of Wonder Woman’s action scenes.

What I find in the quoted text is that Brody’s criticism of Diana’s action sequences is a formal one; too little tactical variety in the choreography for Brody’s liking. I’m not enough of an action enthusiast to break down, after a single viewing, the formal merits and demerits of the action scenes. Furthermore, I have no idea how good the men’s action scenes are, because I got bored and tuned out during the movie’s long midsection where it turns into a Band of Brothers story with Diana Prince as a garnish. Excuse me, I paid to see WONDER WOMAN, not these guys. So I dunno how robust the men’s action is.

But I also had formal problems with the action scenes that did highlight Wonder Woman, though I’ll acknowledge that my reasons are matters of subjective taste.

When I watch an action scene (and this goes to the heart of why I don’t generally dig superduper movies), I want to feel like the performers and fight/stunt choreographers worked overtime, while the special effects crew took the week off. I want the action to be centered on human bodies in motion.

Related: lately I’ve been fascinated by a silent short film by Maya Deren. (Go ahead, click on it, it’s barely longer than 2 minutes.)

Notice how Deren makes surprising choices about how she frames and edits the shots, yet always keeps the focus on the dancer’s body.

If I recall the Wonder Woman movie correctly, when Wonder Woman herself springs into action the postproduction team is laying on the Matrix bling and the old-school anime editing. This makes perfect sense; Wonder Woman is a demigoddess superheroine; why shouldn’t she trail clouds of shekinah glory? It’s just not my favorite flavor of action. I’m a stick in the mud about any movie that isn’t from the Wachowski Sisters using the cinematic vocabulary that Matrix brought to the game.

Wonder Woman’s final fight with Ares is particularly built on the methods of limited-animation anime, which I love… in anime. In live action I’m less delighted to see action cobbled together with Eisensteinian editing. If the movie is putatively live-action, I want the visceral physicality of bodies in motion. Action scenes are dance scenes, after all, and I prefer dance scenes where the choreographer deserves more credit than the editor.

Anyway, it seems to me that Brody’s objections are similar, though not identical, to mine; rooted in cinematic formalist concerns, not misogyny.

As for the feminist affirmational power of the film, I yield the floor.

(P.S. I did like the movie quite a bit)

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