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Mad Max and The Female Editor

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Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie made in the editing room. With very little dialogue, lots of complicated action scenes, a near-endless car chase, and many mostly-unnamed characters to connect with and keep track of, the movie’s editing made the difference between a gripping action movie and an incoherent mess.

So it’s odd, perhaps, that director George Miller chose Margaret Sixel as the movie’s editor. Not only had she never worked on an action movie before, instead working on movies like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City, she didn’t even particularly like action movies. Yet she made the movie a triumph, and became the 12th woman in history to win the Oscar for best editing.

People have attributed her success to the fact that she’s a woman, working in the action genre. Miller himself said he wanted her to work on the movie “because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” But Sixel denies that, telling The Huffington Post: “I don’t feel very female about it.” And I think it does a slight disservice to Sixel’s talent to attribute her success to the fact that she’s a woman, as though all male editors edit in exactly the same way, and all female editors bring more emotion and empathy to the equation. Sixel didn’t create an Oscar worthy movie out of over 470 hours of footage because she was a woman.

But I think it helped that she brought a different perspective — not necessarily the perspective of being female, but the perspective of someone who’s not seen a lot of action movies. She hadn’t internalized a sense of how these movies “should” be done, and so was able to bring something new. Her fresh perspective made it easier for the movie to avoid tropes and narrative laziness, and that’s not a case of gender, so much as a case of bringing a different eye to the project.

That isn’t to say that gender doesn’t matter at all. Editing, along with other technical fields with directing and cinematography, force the viewer into the perspective of the artist, even if we never think of them as we watch. They decide how a moment is framed, what angle is used, what’s left in the movie and what’s left on the cutting room floor — we see the entire movie through whatever perspective they create. This means that we often see movies through that straight white male gaze, leading, intentionally or unintentionally, to significant differences in how male and female characters are presented, such as where viewers’ eyes are drawn in each shot. One of the cinematographers for Mad Max even commented that he struggled to follow Miller’s directive to keep the focus of the scene in the center of the shot, because his instinct told him to include the beautiful girls in the back of the cab in the shot too. We need different perspectives in film, and having more women behind the camera and in the editing room is an important part of that. It lets us see movies we’ve all seen before — action movies, superhero movies, any kind of movie — with different eyes.

But gender isn’t the whole story. The success of Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t just because Margaret Sixel was a female editor. It’s because of the magical combination of her female perspective, and her non-action-movie perspective, and her unique world perspective, and her immense talent and hard work and dedication. It’s not an “oh it was done by a woman” thing. It’s an “it was done by Margaret Sixel” thing.

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Is Mad Max: Fury Road Too Feminist to be Feminist?

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Or, is Mad Max: Fury Road too heavy-handed to be feminist? Is it too obvious?

Yes, this topic is a little bit old. But I just saw the movie for the first time, and since it was involved in a lot of Oscar discussion, I’m gonna pretend it’s still relevant. OK? OK.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a two hour explosion-filled car chase action movie about a badass woman named Furiosa and five sex slaves attempting to first escape from and then overthrow the evil Immortan Joe. Also, there’s a guy called Max.

It is, even from that description, the most overtly feminist action movie that I’ve ever heard of. It’s got a huge cast of female characters, of all ages, the leader of whom has a visible disability. It’s literally about their fight for freedom from the man who controls them.

But the movie’s been criticized, most notable by Anita Sarkeesian, for being faux-feminist. For having heavy handed, overt “feminist” themes that attempt to distract us from the deep flaws beneath. And it’s true that the movie is often heavy handed. It has lots of female characters, yet the armies our heroes fight against are 100% male. It’s literally the story of sex slaves/”wives” running for freedom. There’s an elderly woman who is the keeper of the seeds, and so of potential new life after the apocalypse. The movie really isn’t attempting subtlety here.

But that, I think, is the right approach. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie. Everything about it is big. Characters can have subtle moments, but the action is smack-you-in-the-face. The plot has to be simple enough to allow for minimal dialogue and many explosions, and yet expansive enough to allow us to feel real danger and thrill. This is not the place for small and subtle discussions of misogyny. If Mad Max: Fury Road is going to be different, if it’s going to be a feminist action movie, it has to fit feminism into that context. The feminism needs to be big, it needs to be loud, and it needs to be simple.

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Inside Depression

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I was told Inside Out was a movie about depression.

I was very late watching Pixar’s latest tear-jerker offering (as in, I watched it for the first time last week), so I had plenty of time to hear what other people thought about the movie, and that was the message that stuck. Inside Out is about depression.

So imagine my surprise when I finally saw it, and didn’t think it was about depression at all. Not even metaphorically. It sounds like it should be — Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to control a twelve year old girl’s brain — but the story only covers a couple of days, and the ultimate message is more about what happens when a person feels unable to express sadness than about mental illness. Although it’s a good tool to approach discussions of depression, especially with children, it’s really a story about mental wellness, and the importance of accepting and processing all emotions, including negative ones.

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The Force Awakens breaks the record

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On Wednesday, The Force Awakens passed Avatar as the highest grossing movie in the North American box office, just twenty days after its release.

For comparison, Avatar set its record of $760.5 million after being in theaters for seven months and then later re-released. And Star Wars is probably going to take a whole lot more money before it’s done.

Obviously, The Force Awakens set this record because it’s a Star Wars movie. An excellent Star Wars movie, after a very long break. First people didn’t expect it to ever exist, then people didn’t expect it to ever be good, and now Star Wars fever has taken over, and most people are seeing it at least twice.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a Star Wars movie with a female protagonist. An awesome female protagonist. And a lead trio of one white girl, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy. And a low-key brewing interracial romance between that girl and the black guy (or between the two guys, depending on who you ask).

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Rey and the Hero’s Journey

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I could fangirl about Rey from The Force Awakens all day. She is amazing, to the point that I could barely write anything of substance about her in my review of the movie, since my first-watch reaction was mostly just an excited squealing noise in my head. (And, I’ll admit, out loud).

But I think it’s time to get a tiny bit meta, and talk about Rey as a protagonist, and as a Star Wars protagonist in particular.

The Force Awakens is a perfect Star Wars sequel because it blends the old and the new, feeling fresh and innovative while also echoing A New Hope, and Rey embodies that combination. She’s the lost hero on a desert planet who stumbles across a droid and goes on an adventure, and in the process, her story echoes Luke Skywalker’s narratively, thematically and even visually. Yet she’s not a traditional or even particularly familiar genre protagonist. She follows in the footsteps of Luke’s Hero’s Journey, marking her as the clear protagonist of the story, but she’s also a female lead in a movie aimed at all viewers, in a franchise often seen as one for male viewers in particular.

Rey is a reimagining of the classic hero, but the most significant and innovative thing about her character is how traditional she really is.

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We Are the Capitol: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Theme Park

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A couple of weeks ago, Lionsgate announced that they would be opening several Hunger Games theme parks — one in Atlanta, one in Macau, China and one in Dubai. According to the Guardian:

Guests will be greeted by actors dressed as District 12’s downtrodden inhabitants and get the chance to visit locations such as the Hob black market and Peeta Mellark’s bakery. Other rides will include a “lavish” rollercoaster, built to imitate the train in which Katniss and Peeta make the journey to the Capitol and their meeting with almost certain death.

Sounds… fun?

The media discussion on these theme parks is slightly unclear, but it seems like this won’t be a “Hunger Games Land,” so much as part of a larger Lionsgate-themed entertainment park, including other franchises like Twilight. Even so, the decision to make the dystopian world of The Hunger Games into an interactive visitors’ attraction, like Harry Potter World or Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld, is troubling to say the least, if also rather unsurprising.

But this theme park is simply one more piece in an extended marketing campaign that conveys the book’s dystopian message far more clearly than any book series could do in isolation. The whole point of dystopian fiction is to hold a magnifying glass to the darker parts of our society, and the media reaction to The Hunger Games feels like our society jumping under that magnifying glass, waving its arms and shouting “look at me!” The Hunger Games mirrors the perversions of our own media, and our media responds to the Hunger Games by acting out those perversions even more intensely. At this point, the media around The Hunger Games feels like particularly depressing performance art, with us all playing the role of the Capitol.

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Family in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch

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I just saw Lilo and Stitch for the very first time.

I know, I know, I should have seen it before. But it came out during a misguided teenage “too grown up for Disney” phase, and I never got around to watching it.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Because Lilo and Stitch was possibly the most heartbreaking Disney movie I’ve ever seen.

You know how most Disney/Pixar movies have that one tear-jerking moment, when a character seems dead and all hope seems lost, but then something quickly swoops in to save the day and they all live happily ever after? The writers of Lilo and Stitch seemed to decide that making viewers cry once simply wasn’t enough, and made it their mission to make a movie that is an ever-growing ball of pain and heartbreak that makes the viewer choke on their tears until it finally reaches a bittersweet happy-ish conclusion.

Maybe I’m overstating it. But oh god, it hurt. And the reason it hurt so much was its heart-wrenching look at family.

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Ant Man and the Problem of Marvel’s Necessary Women

Over the weekend, I saw Marvel’s Ant Man, and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. It’s an incredibly fun movie, full of schemes and adventure that strike a great balance between dramatic and ridiculous. But, like many Marvel movies before it, it has a slight female character problem.

Yes, the movie has multiple named female characters. Yes, one of them is “kickass.” And no, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But the most significant thing was that it suddenly made clear to me a problem with Marvel movies, and with a lot of movies in general: the only characters that are female are those that have to be female.

At least, those that have to be female from a heteronormative Hollywood perspective.

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The Modern Cinderella

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2015 seems to be the Year of the Cinderella Retelling, with book and movie versions of the classic tale cropping up everywhere.

Disney released two Cinderella adaptations this year — the live action versions starring Lily James, and the new adaptation of Into the Woods starring Anna Kendricks. The first is a rather earnest, traditional retelling of the story, while Into the Woods seems dedicated to showing how mistaken such fairy tale dreams are. With such drastically different approaches in mind, it seems like the movies should have entirely different messages at their conclusions. And yet in both stories, the different Cinderellas find happiness, can find family, by learning to accept who they are.

And this is a thread I see in almost every modern Cinderella adaptation I find. Whether the adaptation is traditional or radical, the modern Cinderella is reframed as a story of self-discovery, rather than prince discovery, where she needs to have the courage to be truly herself to find her happily ever after.

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