Sunday, February 07, 2010

Movies: Credit in the straight world.

If 2009 is remembered as the year the fright fancy and its hordes of posting pro-am pundits saved Paranormal Activity from languishing in obscurity, we should also not that it was the year the nattering nablogs of negativity unjustly killed Jennifer's Body before giving the flick its day in the court of public opinion. We shouldn't be able to trot out the rodomontade without also owning the mea culpa.

With the possible exception of Rob Zombie's second visit to Haddonfield, no movie arrived in theaters with the critical consensus so firmly set to thumbs down. It was an affront the the fraternity of serious horror guy bloggers who, according to at least one post on a major site, viewed it as a ideological Trojan horse meant to sneak feminists behind the genre walls. It was an affront to self-described feminists who defended the existence of feminist horror films, but showed their commitment to the common cause by throwing the then-unreleased flick under the bus. In what surely ranks as 2009's Finest Moment in Horror Blogging, one self-appointed member of the fright fan feminist vigilance committee managed to both advance the cause of feminism and refer to Megan Fox as a "skinny bitch" in a single post. (She was, in all fairness, kinder than her readers, who later burnished their feminist credentials by calling Fox a "bimbo," "trash," "tramp," and, to gain the added rhetorical power of what linguists refer to as the ass force multiplier effect, "tramp ass.") The film's plot was dismissed as stupid - because satanic emo bands are more absurd than, say, an Eastern European gypsy in California throwing a curse on you because her house was foreclosed on or waiting until after you're living with somebody to tell them that you're the target of demonic stalking ("sorry honey, slipped my mind") - and the filmmakers labeled as slumming hacks trying to cash in on the horror boom that loyalists presumably have been supporting for years.

Narratively flawed, ideologically suspect, inherently insulting to its presumed audience, when Jennifer's Body finally came out, it was basically screwed.

If there's a hero of the curious story of JB's cyber-mob induced still birth, it is the author of comment linked to the "skinny bitch" story who wrote, "The film has yet to air. It would be worth viewing before deciding its fem-horror value. I think." Sadly, that proposed standard for horror bloggers remains largely aspirational. It's a sign of the strength of the critical group-think that tends to dominate our blogs that such an obvious statement would be qualified with the conditional "I think," as if it was some incomprehensible personal quirk of the writer's that she preferred people known what the fuck they're talking about before opening their mouths.

In this case, it would have saved us quite a bit of bile. Oddly enough, now that the dust has settled and bloggers have mostly turned their invective at one another for perceived slights in various internet popularity contests, a handful of late viewers catching Jennifer's Body have realized, to almost nobody's surprise, it's a pretty good film.

Helmed by Karyn Kusama and penned by Diablo Cody, Jennifer's Body is a horror tinged comedy that focuses on two friends: the popular, overbearing, and oversexed titular Jennifer and the mousy, submissive, eternal sidekick Needy.

BFF's with less than subtle lesbonic overtones, J and N's relationship is one of those toxic friendships that maintains a rickety semblance of genuine support strictly due to the fact that its deep and regrettable personal costs fall just short of the benefits of the positive emotional feedback loops between the two. Needy surrenders her personality, sexuality, and external relationships to Jen. In one telling episode, she puts all three on the altar of her friendship by ducking out on a night with her boyfriend, dressing according to Jen's required dress code (which ensures Needy won't outshine Jennifer), and plays second fiddle to Jen on one of Jennifer's missions of sexual conquest. The upshot is that she gets regular crumbs of attention from somebody she is unabashedly allowed to adore. Jennifer, in turn, gets to bask in this worship. However, worship comes with its own cost. Jennifer's got to play the goddess, always on, always desired, unfailing, perfect. This circle between the two is so constricted and intense that they've developed an idiolect out of odd rhyming slang, bit of pop culture detritus, and in-jokes that have gone stale and solidified into metaphors. Some critics have, unjustly, attacked Cody's dialogue as over-stylized and a poor reflection of how modern teens talk. This misses the point of the banter between Jennifer and Needy. It isn't how teens talk. Even the other teens in the film don't get it. In one scene, Needy's boyfriend requests some translation help because he's not in on Needy-Jen speak. It's a unique language special to these two people - it's how they talk when they don't see anybody else in the world.

(Since we're on the topic, how the other characters in the film talk is no less stylized, but to a very different and more satiric end. The rest of the teens speak in an allusive language of borrowed emotions. It's a trick used to great effect in Battle Royale. It suggest an emotional life that far outstrips an ability to express it and gets mauled and transformed by the effort to compress it into the containers of received expression. The emotional lives of the young are, from their relative viewpoint, always radically new. Inside the head of each teen, they are the first person on Earth to, say, ever fall in love. But the expressions they have to make this experience make sense are, for the most part, mass produced, cynical, tired, retreads. They borrow words with frustrated conviction, until they grow into us and figure out that life is easier, if less colorful, matching your ideas to fit the tools you're given. The adults, suitably, speak fluently in the comfortable cliches of therapy, public service announcements, and false cheer of institutionalized camaraderie.)

The plot proper kicks off when Jen drag's Needy to a z-grade music club to catch a hopeless also-ran emo group called Low Shoulder (think of a more awkwardly earnest version of the band that actually wins the Battle of the Bands in School of Rock - they're that crappy). Jennifer approaches this as the predator - she's longing to bag one of the band as yet another notch - only to become the prey; under the mistaken notion that Jennifer is a virgin, the band nabs her when the crumby dive their playing goes Station and roasts most of the patrons. Turns out the band is tired of indie obscurity and has decided to sacrifice Jennifer to the devil in exchange for the rock and roll lifestyle that their sub-modest chops cannot provide.

The mechanics of this particular diabolic deal aren't entirely clear. There isn't an opening on Jennifer that is a veritable Holland Tunnel, so the sacrifice ends up with her partial possession by demonic forces. Though it isn't clear whether or not whether or not the forces of darkness deliver for the band. The band does become instantly popular, but it might be due to nothing more remarkable than the media's maudlin cycle of scripted mourning and celebrity worship. Low Shoulder's, in the media retelling of the club fire, become the heroes of the event. Their rep as the band of survivors who risked their lives for their fans catapults them into the limelight. That the movie leaves open the possibility that where the devils fails, the media helps suggests the focus of much of the film's satire. Though, in an irony that Ms. Cody could well be appreciated, the film falls victim to its own joke: In our boundless hunger for semi-disposable tragedy and associated mawkish rituals of heroism, most of us seem to have long forgotten the odd spectacle of the Station fire and the flick's satirical barb loses some of its sharpness.

Post-sacrifice, Jennifer is reborn with a ravenous apatite for human flesh and, when full of boy meat, Wolverine-grade healing powers. One one hand, her evolution from Hall-and-Oates-ish metaphorical man-eater to a genuine eater of men gives Jennifer a weirdly meta-level view of the world she lives in. It's a curious twist in the flick that, despite the physical attractions of Megan Fox, the filmmakers show that Jen never simply seduces the young men she's preys upon. Her first victim approaches her because he is literally lost and Jen offers to lead him back home. When luring her second victim to his doom, she plays off the fact that he's mourning the loss of his best friend. Only her third victim expresses any sort of attraction to her. Curiously, this attraction is a turn-off for Jennifer until she realizes that Needy finds the boy-lunch somewhat attractive, a wrinkle that compels Jennifer to conquer him in part of her obsession with being the only object of adoration in Needy's world. What changes in Jennifer is an awareness that she's no longer playing by the same rules as everybody else in the film. She becomes a sort of emotional/linguistic chameleon, expertly manipulating the vapid store-bought phrases and emotions that the other characters traffic in. (This is another facet of the clever, if thoughtlessly maligned, Cody-speak of the two leads: Their idiolect is jarringly abnormal because, unlike the easy mass language of the people around them, Jennifer and Needy are the only two people who actually talk to one another.) Despite the marketing, sex isn't what Jennifer wields over her victims. Her weapon is a understanding of the drift and confusion of young men and women whose lives, personalities, and thoughts aren't their own. In an interesting counterbalance to this insight, Jennifer never loses her need for Needy's adoration. Perfection isn't the necessary precondition of a state of goddess-hood, but being worshiped is. Jen gains unspeakable power, but it will never be enough because her sense of being is predicated on the adoration of another. In one telling scene, Jen is flexing her new found power by burning her tongue with a lighter and watching it heal instantly. Though, immediately after watching evidence of her newly indestructible nature, she twists slightly and pats her tummy, concerned about possible weight gain. It's a move more vulnerable than vain. We know who she's thinking of. The boys come to the freakin' yard because she can play them like fiddle. She's worried of being less than perfect in the eyes of Needy.

Ultimately, Needy's not down with the whole demonic eating people thing and the two friends face off. The results are satisfying, if somewhat predictable. Cody's script never gets so clever as to lose momentum and Kusama tackles the material with a energetic pop sensibility that keeps things visually pleasing and narratively clear. The results are a darkly humorous outing that manages to deliver the goods without insulting the viewer's intelligence.


Sarah said...

*insert "OH SNAP!" gif/macro here*

Nice Young Marble Giants/Hole reference. It astounds me how many people don't get that Jennifer's Body is a Hole reference.

I don't think the satanic emo/indie band idea is idiotic at all. There's enough rumors about certain members of a couple, now popular-after-toiling-for-years indie bands who have raped or assaulted women before they were famous to the point where Cody may very well know the rumors and allegations (one rumor in particular is 15 years old, was mentioned in the popular music mags of the 90s, and this band only finally became popular 5 years ago).

zoe said...

*ass force multiplier effect*

i do love your way with words...

there's a lot in this post...i'm fascinated by the bit about the expanse of experience teenagers (and adults, really) try to fit into canned language--really well-said. i'm always glad when there's someone in the film industry actually playing with language at all...
also, lots of fun to read, as always...

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

I was always interested in seeing Jennifer's Body (ugh, that sounds worse than it should), but never really got around to it during it's run in theaters. Not sure if it was because of the overall negative reaction to it, Megan Fox's inescapable and sometimes overbearing public persona, or that I really wasn't much for Juno (even if it was somewhat refreshing that the screenwriter was the force behind JB's buzz), but it just never happened. Now that the movie has flopped and is harmlessly on DVD, it probably will.

CRwM said...


I wasn't aware of the rumors you mentioned while watching the flick, but the idea that Cody was making some intention allusion is credible, I think. The scene where the band whisks her away suggests rape (though it quickly turns intentionally absurd).

CRwM said...


I'm glad you enjoyed it. I thought the interplay of several different modes if speaking, from the in-joke laden language of the leads to the vapid groupspeak of their teachers, was well done here. I'm kinda sad many folks, including critics I respect for their insight, found it lacking.

CRwM said...


I think it's definitely worth the look-see. As for Fox, her public persona actually reinforces the role she plays here in a smart way. Her acting is hardly earth-shattering, but she gives the film what it demands with all=pro effectiveness. There's a lot of small moments that could have been missed by somebody phoning in a paycheck-grabbing performance. She does better than people gave her credit for, I think.

Sasquatchan said...

Meh. I'm just a Cody hater. She's on par with Xeni