At the Movies

It’s been quiet around these parts, we know, we know. But look, we’re all really busy and important (at least one of those things anyway). There has been some moving internationally, some uni assignment completion (and procrastination) and some of us, naming no names, have been playing a lot of Glitch.

On Wednesday the members of SJL, still in the same country (*sob*), went to the cinema. We even managed to get our applicable concession tickets and good seats! Just as an aside, can I just talk about going to the movies? Why is so ridiculously complicated? It’s like one of those mini quests in Glitch which involves a lot of jumping between constantly moving levels and makes me feel intensely anxious because everything just won’t line up and I never played Nintendo as a kid and my fine motor skills suffered.

This complaint should probably be accompanied by the world’s tiniest violin because I don’t think they even have concession tickets in the US? (Presumably because it’s socialism). Anyway, SJL are still in the process of completing Uni, doing unpaid internships and being un/under-employed. Basically it’s like Girls but with slightly more POC and better sex. [1. Rest of SJL: not happy with this comparison]. Also we get some money from the government for being students because, socialism. Basically, we aren’t going to pay $5 extra for movie tickets if we don’t have to, so we must all assemble [2. Who is thinking about The Avengers now?] with correct student cards at the allotted time even though we are all, invariably running late or early. But we totally nailed buying the correct tickets to the correct movie because we are motherfucking adults! [3. Eds note: perhaps writing a whole paragraph about this undermines your point?]

And what movie were we going to see? [4. Further eds note: Are you planning to get to the action any time soon? This is a blogpost not a Tolkien novel, no one wants to know the songs you sang on the way to the cinema, OK. ] We were going to see The Sapphires a movie you have probably heard about if you are Australian and almost certainly haven’t if you aren’t.

Things that are almost always true of Australian movies:

1. There are about 100 credits as the movie starts because it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to get a movie made in Australia. I know this is also true of American indie releases because it’s hard out there for a pimp/movie maker, but for Aussie movies at least a few of the “this is a [BlahBlah Production]” credits are for government government funded bodies (again with the communism!).

2. It is nice to hear Australian accents on film. It just is, OK? We aren’t in many movies and when we are often we are played by English people or, even worse, New Zealanders. There is a joke in the movie where Chris O’Dowd’s character, speaking in his Irish accent, says “As you can probably tell from my accent I’m not from around these parts, I’m from Melbourne!” Which SJL laughed uproariously at, hopefully foreign audiences also get this.

3. It is exciting to see Australian life/places on screen. Maybe it is condescending for me to say this but I really don’t think many Americans get this. Until I went to America I thought the following things only existed in movies: those red plastic cups at parties , yellow school buses [5. I’d like to make it clear that we do have busses in Australia, even school buses, they just don’t look so yellow and story-bookish (I make this point because when I exclaimed about school buses in the US my American friend looked at me with horror and said “You don’t have buses in Australia?” and as much as I tried to reassure her I don’t think she ever really believed me).] , NYPD cars, people calling their friend’s parents by their last names, prom, high school cheerleaders, high school sport being SRS BSNS,  college sport being SRS BSNS etc. I also have a completely mangled view of the legal system of my own country because I’ve watched a lot of US court dramas. I am forever this close to thinking 911 is the emergency number I should call, whatever country I am in. Which is not to say that American Cultural Imperialism Is Ruining Everything. Because, I really like a lot of American popular culture, but it’s a nice change to see a movie set in outback Australia and the city in which I live (and also Vietnam, a place I have briefly lived. Basically, they made this movie for me).

4. You recognise most of the actors from a combination of the following: being in every other Australian movie you’ve ever watched, being the Australian actor who made it big overseas and is now back to prove their Aussie-ness and “give back”, your twitter feed and that time you once saw them at the shops and thought you recognised them but weren’t sure.

5. They are not very good. I know, I am bringing dishonour to my country but it’s true! Usually Australian movies are cheap and either:
a) so incredibly arty that you know you should be appreciating the art but you find yourself thinking in deep shame about how much fun Magic Mike was,
b) so incredibly broad you feel yourself at once wanting to dive under the cinema seat and suffering deep shame at your cultural cringe or,
c) Animal Kingdom, which I hear is great and all the nerdy movie podcasters/bloggers I follow really liked it but I’m kind of a wimp about violence so I haven’t seen it but I totally pretend to have at parties.

The Sapphires, though, is actually totally great! It’s the story inspired by real life of four Aboriginal women who go to Vietnam in the 60s to sing for the American forces there. It explores issues of race and gender, and there is singing and dancing. I laughed, I cried! (I actually cried a lot, so much so that it caused SJL to rummage through their bags for a napkin).

But I hear this blog is supposed to be a Social Justice blog so let’s try that. I am not going to “spoil” the movie in this section but I will reveal some background information and some plot developments so if you prefer to go into your movies with as little knowledge as possible, stop reading now!

  • Race. Clearly I am no expert on this and I welcome POC to pull me up if I am missing nuance. The film addresses the level of racism in Australia during this time, and the limitations this placed upon what aboriginal people could do and the places they could go. There are a lot of jokes about race in this movie, but none of them are made at the expense of the POC. They are jokes about stereotypes and about the horror and stupidity of racism. I was particularly impressed with the way that the film dealt with the idea of “passing” as white and the complications that causes. This is an issue regularly brought up by unenlightened “commentators” in Australia . Kay, one of the singers is pale enough to be perceived as white. The film at once acknowledges the privilege this confers upon her while also exploring the pain and confusion this causes.
  • Holy female gaze batman. The film delights in treating male, (often) black bodies in the way that movie-makers usually treat (generally) white, female bodies. So when you see that slow upward pan of Kay’s love interest’s rippling abs remember you are doing it for feminism (feminism is a lot of fun guys, lets be honest). Also, I can’t lie, I do enjoy the reverse-Bella they pull on that guy by making his main, characteristic the fact that he is clumsy. While the love interest we learn the most about is white, the black male characters are shown to be at times desirable, funny, clever, enterprising and nuanced.
  • The feisty female character doesn’t have to submit to the male love interest. You know fairly early on, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, who’s going to end up together and from that point I was concerned that the female character was going to have to give in, to tone down her opinions. She never does. Also the way that he asks her to marry him is probably one of the sweetest and most egalitarian proposals of all time (I welcome alternatives in the comments).
  • Body diversity. At SJL we reject the assertion that some women’s bodies are better, or more womanly than others, while at the same time acknowledging problems of representation and the overall thinness of womens bodies in the media. (This is high level feminism folks, and please do try it at home, on the bus and at parties etc). So, it’s really nice to see a movie where the main female lead and part of a romantic pairing is not thin and her weight is never mentioned. Of course it shouldn’t be an issue because women Deborah Mailman’s size are not some kind of niche minority, they are us, our friends, our mothers and our co workers but they are weirdly absent from the screen.

The movie, unsurprisingly for a feel-good movie featuring musical numbers, is schmaltzy at times. Often these moments are cut through with jokes (because Australians think feelings are gross [6. A massive generalization! Also many English people think feelings are gross.] ). There is a scene where Kay secures them passage through land held by the Vietcong by giving a speech in an Aboriginal dialect. It’s also worth making the point that it is somewhat reductive to view the Vietnam War along entirely racial lines as this scene appears to. If nothing else the (North) Vietnamese wanted freedom from anyone who tried to deny it of them, including the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans (and not all the American soldiers were white, as the film itself makes clear) and they would fight them all. As guests of the US Army The Sapphires would surely be viewed as the enemy. The Vietcong were pretty hardcore (understatement) and I’m fairly certain that speaking to them in the Yorta Yorta language would not have worked, but I was crying a lot at that point, and narratively it worked so you know, whatevs.

And finally, I’m pretty sure that “bag of dicks” was not a thing that people said in 1960s Australia, but prove me wrong. OK, now let’s chair dance it out…

 

 


8 Comments on At the Movies

  1. insomnius says:

    Re footnote 2: Me. I was.

    Also I laughed a lot reading this and I would like to see this movie.

  2. Connie Connie says:

    I want to reiterate again how amazingly good this film is, and how well it deals with race as a political issue but also as a personal identity. The film is pretty light and fluffy overall, and in my experience that type of media tends to try and sweep racial issues under the rug. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have films that set out to explore racial tensions very deeply, but don’t attract as much mainstream interest because of that. (And The Sapphires is currently being shown in the mainstream cinemas, not just the super indie ones.)

    What this film did was develop engaging and deep female characters, whose indigenous identities were valued and well-represented, but not tokenised. It was especially great that each character experienced and reacted to their position in society very differently – so there was never only One True Aboriginal Experience. There is the issue of one of the characters passing as white as Caphe mentioned, but also memorably the following exchange (that I will paraphrase):

    SPOILERS (edit: I have just realised this scene is in the first trailer above!)

    Two of the sisters try to catch a lift from a passing car into town, and the car drives past them. One of them complains that the cars are not stopping for them. The other says, “It’s because we’re black, stupid.” To which the first sister replies, “Nah, it’s because you’re ugly.”

  3. Beth_in_Mpls says:

    Great review! Made me laugh and want to see the movie. I hope it comes to the U.S.!

  4. A says:

    Haven’t actually seen this yet (though I may mosey down to my local cinema tomorrow) but about your point about the female gaze and male (usually) black bodies — it sounds to me like racialised hypersexualisation. Would you say that this happened in the film?

    • Caphesuada Caphesuada says:

      Hi A, I didn’t perceive it to be that as you are very much viewing the bodies from the women’s eyes. The movement of the camera makes this clear. I think the want/attraction that the women feel is not of hypersexualised othering but of feeling connected, and attracted to the men because of that connection. I also don’t think the men themselves fit into the kind of stereotypes you see of sexualized black men? Also, as an aside the film is written, directed and produced by POC and that eases my concerns about othering. Having said all that, I could still totally be wrong about this, or missing something! Let me know what you thought! :)

  5. q____q says:

    Sorry, I’m really late for this.

    Haven’t seen the movie (yet) but from the trailer this looks like another case of White Man’s Burden (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhiteMansBurden), where a white character (in this case the manager?) helps the poor, oppressed PoC to rebel/realize their full potential (which is nice for the white audience, because they can identify with the nice white person and does not have to reflect if they might at least partly have something in common with all the racists white characters) but this is of course also very problematic because it also totally undermines the agency of the PoC characters. The Help (2011) was another recent example of this trope (where white pixie dream girl helps the poor black household helps to do something against their situation).

    As someone who has actually seen the film I’d like your opinion on this.

    • Caphesuada Caphesuada says:

      I think that is certainly a valid reading of the film and definitely worth bringing up. The manager is white and he does in some ways help the women “reach their potential”. There are so few films about these kind of characters so it is sad from a representation point of view that we don’t have more examples in popular media of POC building their own futures without the assistance of white characters.

      For me personally I felt that this film showed a) That it was because of systematic oppression that having a white manager was helpful, not because the POC lacked intelligence/resilience etc. and that b) the manager is often wrong and the butt of quite a few jokes. For me that made his character far less objectionable and less problematic, but obviously ymmv and I might be missing something.

      I also think that the character is possibly more of a part of the advertising because Chris O’Dowd is more famous internationally. Which yeah, also pretty problematic.


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