Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why "Planet Terror" Doesn't Work

This post, by the way, kind of assumes you saw "Planet Terror", Robert Rodriguez's contribution to the interesting-but-flawed film 'Grindhouse'. And it was, in fact, interesting...but flawed. What was the flaw? (Apart from casting the human particle board known as Rose McGowan in the lead female role, that is.) Simply put, it's the flaw of the script's actions not following its words. Slightly less vaguely put, it's that it's not enough to have characters telling you that a female character is strong, powerful and self-reliant, you actually need to have her being strong, powerful and self-reliant. Even if the film's text is about female empowerment, it's not going to matter if your subtext is sexist as all hell.

Basically, for those of you who haven't seen the film, it centers (more or less) on Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who discovers her true calling in the middle of a zombie outbreak caused by a theft of biological weapons gone wrong. She becomes a rough, tough zombie-killing cyborg with a machine gun for a leg (replacing the limb that was torn off by zombies, natch) who leads the human resistance to safety. Sounds nice and feminist, right?

Except for one thing. El Wray. El Wray (played by Freddy Rodriguez, no relation to the director) is Cherry's ex-boyfriend, who makes a point of telling her how strong she is, how tough she is, how powerful and resilient and charismatic and heroic she is...um, while he's, um, actually doing all the heroic stuff. He rescues her from the hospital, he literally forces her to stand on her foot and prosthetic leg while she's sitting there moping, he rescues her another two or three times, he finds her the machine-gun leg, and her heroic plan for guiding the refugees to safety? It's his plan. She follows it after he tells her, with his dying breath, to become their heroic leader.

Seriously, that's the end of the movie. "Become a charismatic and heroic leader, Cherry." "Yes, sir." There's just no way to make that scene work, because it undercuts itself.

And this is the difference between feminism as text and feminism as subtext. Lots of horror movies have a text that isn't particularly feminist--they have psycho killers with mommy issues galore, axe-wielding maniacs, and guys who love to kill women for fun. But when the female characters respond by fighting back and killing the killers, that shows them, through their actions, to be strong and resilient and powerful. Whereas if they aren't actually strong, resilient, powerful people, just having someone else in the film talk about how great they are isn't going to ring true. That's why "Planet Terror" doesn't work. It doesn't ring true.

(That, and it's not nearly as cool as the trailers that follow it. Why are those not on the DVD, dammit?)


Grazzt said...

On the other hand, couldn't that faux-feminism be part of the call back to the exploitation genre? Does it work as deliberate satire?

John Seavey said...

I'd say no, because the tone's not satirical. In 'Big Trouble In Little China', for example, the disconnect between Jack Burton's estimation of his own abilities and his actual skills is played for comic effect (and done quite well in that regard...)

Here, it's almost pathetically sincere in the way that Rodriguez thinks he's presenting the evolution of a feminist icon.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a classic case of what TV Tropes calls a Faux Action Girl. I do have one slight quibble, though--I'd say you can have a, "Become a hero!" "Yes sir!" scene without it undercutting the film. After all, that's practically what mentors are for in stories. The trick is, it needs to come at the beginning of the film, not the end, and it sounds like they really screwed that part up.

John Seavey said...

I agree; it needs to come at the beginning, and I also think that the tone is important as well. A good mentor/hero relationship involves a hero who has the will but not necessarily the knowledge of how to defeat the villains, and a mentor who imparts that knowledge. It's more a matter of education than motivation. (Luke put up a token resistance to leaving Tatooine, but he didn't really take much persuading.)

Whereas in "Planet Terror", El Wray is really doing all the work. Cherry's "heroic leadership" involves following his plan and doing what he tells her to when he tells her to do it. His dying words aren't imparting some sort of wisdom to her, they're a set of orders. :)

Anonymous said...

so does the movie have to be viewed as a feminist piece of art? If it doesn't work in that way, can it work in another way?

Trey said...

The whole project (Grindhouse) is a satire of a specific era of film. It wouldn't as work as well if had the satirical tone you suggest because it would break the the pretense of it being something its not--a film from the grindhouse era.

Anonymous said...

Id just like to say that no one actually gives a single fuck haha. They make those movies for shits and giggles, what you thought the man with the iron fists is bad too cuz the soundtrack wasnt authentic chinese music nor was everyone in the movie asian? Then you gotta wipe the shit from your eyes. Overall it was enjoyable definitely 4 tarintino's out of 5 for make up and performance and the ability so sum it all up in a short amount of time

Jacob Fox said...
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Jacob Fox said...
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Jacob Fox said...

I disagree totally. First, Planet Terror isn't meant to be a feminist anything. It's an homage to bad zombie movies of the 70's. So, in order for it to support the point you want to make, your comments completely change the theme of the movie in order to claim it doesn't work. Since this movie is not attempting to be a pro feminist work, the fact that it fails to fulfill that requirement does not mean the movie doesn't work.

Furthermore, your own conclusions are still faulty if we assume this is an attempt at feminism. What Cherry does is very impressive regardless of El Wray. She quits her job with nowhere to go and no prospects because she knows she can do better. In one night, she has her leg amputated and with El Wray's help and encouragement, she grows strong. She also goes out to retrieve the car against El Wray's wishes when the men wouldn't do it. When Taylor is humiliating her, she knocks him down and sticks her wooden leg through his eye.

If you want to look at this movie through a feminist hero perspective, you're still seeing it wrong. This movie shows El Wray and Cherry separately have their flaws, but they complement each other and become stronger. Both of them do heroic things on their own, but they BOTH are most effective when they are together.

El Wray is not the only person who does heroic things in this movie. Your assessment makes no sense.

This movie has a girl who can shoot a machine gun on her leg without the use of a trigger. It has men melting and infected people similar to zombies. It is completely unrealistic, nonsensical and it is that deliberately. You cannot then judge the movie as not working when it doesn't attempt to be what you are criticizing it for.

John Seavey said...

The problem with that read is that the text does make it explicit that this is intended to be a feminist film: Over and over again, we're told that Cherry Darling is strong and heroic and tough and determined and doesn't take crap from anybody. It'd actually be a better movie if they made her El Wray's appendage, because at least it'd be honest--this movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, showing El Wray as a sensitive dude who respects his woman, while not bothering to put anything there to respect.