I have to make a confession. It’s rather embarrassing to have to admit to any psychological problems, but I’m afraid that in this case it’s necessary, so that my viewpoint on a film that recently got raves is made clearer. I suffer from a rare mental disorder called Extreme Tilda Swinton Bias. I don’t concern myself with it much, since I have found that it compliments Stravinsky on the Brain quite well.
I first discovered that I have this disorder when I saw “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I admit, my interest in that movie was minimal (How much more CGI and celebrity voice-overs do we need?), but then Swinton made her appearance. I could tell at the first cock of her head that, like a cat, her eyes point wherever her nose leads them. Be on your guard if she’s ever looking directly at you. In the opening scene of “Orlando,” one of my favorites, she looks directly into the camera, and straight into you. Watch out from then on, or you might have to join my support group.
Swinton’s latest magnificent performance was in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a misunderstood but beautiful movie directed by Lynne Ramsay. Like PJ Harvey, both Swinton and Ramsay strike me as the sort of female artists who have no need for political views or political power. True, in at least one interview I’ve read, Ramsay claims that the English film industry is “completely sexist,” but for her achievement with “Kevin,” I’ll let it slide. Right or wrong in her assessment, when I read that she decided to be a drummer for a while after a disappointment surrounding “The Lovely Bones,” a film she tried to make first before Peter Jackson got a hold of it, I figure she may embrace feminism or some other –ism, but she clearly has no need for it.
Great art has no need for any –ism at all. The greatest works of art always transcend the ability of the artist to create. Such was the case with Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Malcolm X,” a highly politically charged movie that revealed X in all his complex wonder. You can’t plan that.
Most days, with strange, quirky films like the previously mentioned “Orlando” or “Edward II,” my ETSB doesn’t trouble me too much. I simply learn to cope by enjoying it. Then there’s mainstream Tilda running up on stage to win an Oscar for “Michael Clayton,” where she expresses her own female version of Othello’s torment (when he deliberately chooses evil over good), and pays the same sort of awful price. It doesn’t bother me much there, either. Hell, she even made film noir palatable for me with “Julia.”
Then there’s “Kevin,” which left me speechless. I went right onto the Internet Movie Database and gave it 5 stars out of 10, because of the horrifying way in which her son is portrayed, and the way that the father’s character is “sidelined.” (The description at IMDb.com certainly doesn’t help, either.)
Great works of art, however, have a way of getting under my skin. They refuse to leave until they get the number of stars they deserve. Therefore, when I realized that this one wouldn’t be leaving the thought process anytime soon, I dutifully went back, my fingers trembling with the more severe effects of ETSB, and gave it several more.
Unfortunately, great works of art are also subject to misinterpretation or, even worse, over-interpretation, sort of like giving Beethoven’s Fifth a disco beat in the late seventies to make it danceable. (You’ve got to be kidding me!) Such is the case with a feminist-leaning review in The Guardian, written by a man who ought to know far, far better. Someone forgot to tell Peter Bradshaw that it’s not only dangerous to read too much into a movie, but positively bad for your health to take feminist assertions seriously. Everything said in the linked review could just as easily be said in the exact reverse, by a men’s-movement-loving-anarchist-fag like me. But I refuse.
I refuse to interpret or use this film as a condemnation of government schooling in toto, even though I’d love to. I cannot judge this film as being anti-male, either. There is good reason for showing an impossible boy, but I do not honestly believe it is to denigrate boys or men. There is also an excellent, even ingenious reason for making the father, played well by the loveable John C. Reilly, a side character (along with the baby sister), which only becomes completely apparent as this macabre masterpiece draws to a close.
Throughout the film, there are other reasons for showcasing what I might otherwise find objectionable. In simplest terms, the father and the sister are not the issue. It is not their behavior and relationships with Kevin that contribute to the unfolding horror, at least not much. But more than that, this is a film that largely exists in the mind of the mother, as she replays her life with Kevin, in a futile attempt to answer the question why. The viewer is not shown moments of Kevin’s more tender thoughts and feelings because they are not germane to that question.
Therefore, the main idea of the story is centered on the thoughts of a grieving woman, Eva, whose life must start over with nothing to guide her but this one question, as she deals on a daily basis with having become a pariah in her own community. Of course the audience should sympathize with her. She is not responsible for the school massacre. In a touching moment that Bradshaw manages to mention in his idiotic review, the mother is confronted in the parking lot by a male classmate of Kevin who is now paralyzed (with some hope of being able to walk again, as he tells her with a big grin), fully expecting the venom that everyone else in town spits at her, male and female. She is genuinely surprised at his attitude, and it helps to provide much-needed balance.
What did she do wrong? She tells younger Kevin something horrible: “Before you were born, Mommy used to be happy. Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France.” She becomes violent, accidentally breaking his arm after he deliberately soils his prepubescent diaper, since he refuses to potty train, something he does seemingly for no other reason but to get back at her. Worse still, she convinces him to help her lie about the broken arm to everyone else.
Prior to that abuse, why would he want to get back at her? We are given clues as the mother reflects on a life she apparently didn’t want, or was, at best, ambivalent about. She sits in the locker room after an exercise class that caters to pregnant women. All the other expectant mothers, standing around with protruding bellies that they lovingly caress and boast about, seem not to notice that Eva is seated by herself, staring blankly into the distance. She stares into this same distance in the hospital bed after giving birth. She holds baby Kevin at arm’s length when he cries. She tries to push him into enjoying being a normal toddler by playing ball, when he’s clearly not interested. He seems to be a child that most suburban women would fail to raise well, leading more than one reviewer to make mistakes in interpreting this as “some people are just born bad.”
This is, in my view, an egregious error, one that Bradshaw makes in his review. Then he takes it to an inexcusable conclusion, beyond misunderstanding the point of the film: “It is a movie which is a skin-peelingly intimate character study and a brilliantly nihilist [No it’s not.], feminist parable [It’s not that, either.]: what happens when smart progressive career women give birth to boys: the smirking, back-talking, weapon-loving competitive little beasts that they have feared and despised since their own schooldays?”
Let’s answer that disgusting question, a much easier one than the one posed in the film, by looking at some progressive career women in the film industry who have done just that.
Meryl Streep holds the record for the most Oscar nominations and the most Golden Globe nominations for acting, has worked steadily in film and kept a marriage together, both for more than 30 years, while raising four children to adulthood, including a “smirking, back-talking, weapon-loving competitive little” beast, Henry.
Goldie Hawn has been partnered with Kurt Russell for a long, long time during a long, long career in film and television, and raised three children, two of whom were boys, no doubt composed of little more than snips, snails, and random thoughts of murder.
Sally Field, while winning two Oscars, bested Streep and Hawn in the gross-out factor by permitting three Y sperms to impregnate her X eggs, one of whom, when he’s not smirking, acts and directs. Bastard.
Oh my God, here comes the ETSB. Swinton herself has a son who’s a teenager now. Run for cover. Don’t look at me, lady!
Yet to another male reviewer like-minded with Bradshaw, “What [Ramsay] means to do is to explore Eva’s guilt and self-loathing – her suspicion that she not only gave birth to a monster but somehow created that monster through her reluctance to sacrifice her career and lifestyle on some domestic altar.” For fuck’s sake, do these men even remember being boys?
Maybe there’s one typical female complaint that could help us out here. Maybe these men should experience pregnancy, so that they can see what it’s really, really like to be a woman. I’ll direct them to this website, where we can read the words of some more career women:
Kathy Ireland: “I was once pro-choice and the thing that changed my mind was, I read my husband’s biology books, medical books, and what I learned… At the moment of conception, a life starts. And this life has its own unique set of DNA, which contains a blueprint for the whole genetic makeup. The sex is determined. We know there’s a life because it’s growing and changing.” Took the words right out of my mouth. Right out of my mouth.
Patricia Heaton: “The early feminists were pro-life. And really, abortion is a huge disservice to women, and it hasn’t been presented that way. As Feminists for Life – what we’re trying to do is support women, and so what we want to do is – reach women on campus – college campuses so that, when they get pregnant, they can find housing. They can find money they need to stay in school.” A pro-life anarchist homo’s free-market answer to the whole dilemma, and Heaton probably doesn’t even know what an anarchist is.
Kate Mulgrew: “Life is sacred to me on all levels. Abortion does not compute with my philosophy.” Friggin’ Trekkie.
Madonna: “I was stunned when I saw on the ultrasound a tiny, living creature spinning around in my womb. Tap-dancing, I think. [Of course.] Waving its tiny arms around and trying to suck its thumb. I could have sworn I heard it laughing.”
Brooke Shields: “Too many people use abortion as a form of birth control. And that’s very wrong. I could never, ever have an abortion.”
Susan B. Anthony, the mother of every woman’s precious, precious vote, the denial of which oppressed them to the extreme: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.”
I guess they were only talking about girl fetuses. Boy fetuses, on the other hand…
Bradshaw’s lousy interpretation of a thought-provoking, nightmarish movie does not square with what the director or even the author of the book has said. From Lionel Shriver, the author (and a woman, in case you were fooled by the name): “My biggest concern is to capture the quality of the slightly unreliable narrator, and the ambiguity over who is to blame [emphasis mine].” From the director: “It’s not an issue movie.”
The Guardian may be paying Bradshaw for his awful conclusion, but at least they also published an interview (where Ramsay accused the English film industry of sexism) written by Sean O’Hagan that, in my mind, settles the matter:
“‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is not a film for the fainthearted or perhaps anyone approaching childbirth for the first time. [Oh, for crying out loud. Another man who needs to get pregnant.] As the credits rolled in the preview screening I attended, I heard one woman tell another that the film ‘was one long, violent argument against having children’. When I tell Ramsay this, she cracks up.
“‘Man, people are funny. They bring their own stuff. The thing is, it’s not a realist film. That’s where people seem to be getting their knickers in a twist. It’s a “what if?” film. And, if you’re a mother, it’s a bloody big “what if?” What if I don’t love my child? What if he picks up on that and turns it back on me? It’s a taboo subject and, for that reason, very disturbing in the questions it asks.’”
She then reveals, concerning her own mother and brother: “You could see a look in her eye sometimes that said: ‘You fucker! I don’t like you.’ But, she always took him back. It’s that mother-son thing, a kind of primal co-dependency. I definitely drew on that for Kevin.”
The article goes on to mention that she worked with a child psychologist for the film, and came to the following conclusion: “Even to make a diagnosis, the child’s behaviour would have to be so very extreme for a prolonged time. There are a lot of unanswered questions and different points of view, not least because even so-called normal kids can have abnormal behavioural tendencies for a while.”
Born monsters? Bullshit. Boys especially, inherently, unavoidably, or uniquely so? An even bigger pile of bullshit. People certainly don’t have to like this horror film, or the sex-shifting “Orlando,” or the CGI-laden “Narnia” series, or any others of a handful of films not related to Tilda Swinton. But they do need to stop adding their own agendas to whatever they choose to watch.
Sadly, Bradshaw’s review of the decidedly misandrist “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” an originally Swedish film (hint, hint) that takes place in Sweden (hint, hint, hint, hint), with assorted Nazis played by English-speaking actors this time, bespeaks of an agenda and a half going on in his feminist-sympathizing head:
“As the girl with the dragon tattoo, [Rooney Mara] is absolutely lethal, an implacable avenger and a black-belt sexual presence. Where Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth was sometimes mysterious, often acting from behind a Gothy curtain of hair, Rooney is more explicit, more aggressive… [conveying] Lisbeth’s rage at the way she has been abused and raped by men, and shows how this has enabled her to help Blomkvist intuit the truth behind the misogynist hate-crimes.”
How does Lisbeth do this? Well, instead of leaving the office of the heavily bearded government jerk who wants her to give him a blowjob and complaining to one of his superiors, or better yet, using her technological genius to get herself a fucking job instead of waiting on government dole, she electrocutes her rapist (right after he starts voluntarily apologizing for what he did), chains him to the floor, gags his mouth, shoves a gigantic metal dildo in his rectum without lubricant while he screams, and tattoos “I’M A RAPIST PIG” in big, black letters across his chest and protruding, hairy torso. For this, Rooney gets an Oscar nod, while Swinton does not.
As Bradshaw makes idiotically clear in that review, we’re actually supposed to like and have sympathy for her up to the end of the film, a movie where the real killer frightens the audience by talking about how torturing and murdering his victims (cue the “genius” musical score) “…makes me ha-a-a-rd.” Shortly after that, I pressed “eject.” (No, wait. Let’s say I pressed “open.” The former sounds too much like “ejaculation.”)
Several interviews with the director of “Kevin” and I still don’t know what she thinks politically. Two reviews of Bradshaw’s and his modus operandi is clear. He has successfully been instructed to hate that monstrous thing in all of us prick-owners, that “mystique” as it were, that makes us ha-a-a-rd.
In yet another interview, Ramsay gives reviewers like Bradshaw a warning: “Someone came to me at Ratcatcher [another film she directed] and said that, ‘That’s a film about Jesus Christ. You made a film about Jesus Christ. It’s all the kids (are) Jesus’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, really?’ I mean I wasn’t really conscious of that, at the time, you know…”
Prior to doing this review, I looked up several Ramsay interviews just to see if I was missing a subtle political point, or an even subtler dig at the male sex. After numerous encounters with the director’s own words, I failed. Then Bradshaw finishes his awful review of “Kevin” with a clincher, revealing why he says what he says, and embodying in his review one of the greatest feminist lies: “As Swinton’s Eva wearily washes off the red paint that someone has splattered over her porch, the movie wanly restates the un-dramatic truth: the mess must be cleaned up somehow, and it isn’t the men who wind up doing it.”
On that repulsive, completely misfired note, shot like one of Kevin’s arrows (see the movie to get that one), I’ll busy myself with eagerly tending to my ETSB, and all its inherent pleasures. Mr. Bradshaw, after knowing full well how the movie ends, you should have known better than to write that execrable review. Get a goddamned clue.