August 27, 2008

Frozen Feminism

I like to imagine that one day during the filming of Freeze Me, the producers approached writer/director Takashi Ishii, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "We all know the plan was to make a slick, updated "Pinky Violence" sexploitation flick, but, damn, this doesn't look half bad! I know, let's turn it into an art house film!"

So what could have been a kick-ass, soft-core revenge movie instead ends up an unsatisfying pile of faux "independent film" pretentiousness. And still manages to be just as misogynistic.

The story goes as follows: after getting raped by a trio of knuckle-dragging thugs, Chihiro (Harumi Inoue) has moved to Tokyo and made a new life for herself. Then thug number one shows up and, blackmailing her with a video made by his cohorts of their previous "encounter," announces he's ready to pick up where they left off last time.

A bunch of degrading sex later, Chihiro has had it up to here and caves his head in. Well, it was about time. The problem is, she has no convenient way to dispose of the body in downtown Tokyo. So she buys an industrial-sized freezer (delivery included) to store the corpse in while she figures it out.

Then thug number two shows up wondering what happened to thug number one and decides to avail himself of the same opportunities. Chihiro spends less time putting him on ice as well. And then thug number three—well, you get the picture.

But all this freezing is sucking up the power in Chihiro's rabbit hutch of an apartment, and it being the middle of the summer, the only way to keep from throwing a circuit breaker every five minutes is to turn off the air conditioner. Then the only way for her to cool off, natch, is to take lots of long showers.

Now, to be honest, I could have spent the entire 100 minutes just watching Harumi Inoue take showers. In any case, at this point in the film, we have the makings of a clever black comedy, with plenty of eye candy thrown in.

I was even willing to forgive Chihiro her maddening passivity during the first third of the movie. It's the standard Death Wish revenge fantasy formula: pacifist gets shocked into action and delivers violent justice to evil-doers ("a conservative is a liberal who got mugged"). Except that once the revenge is delivered, the plot grinds to a screeching halt.

Here is the rest of the movie (seriously):

Chihiro's loser boyfriend discovers what's in the freezers, and after some "It's not you, it's me" sex, he gets it too. Then she jumps off the balcony. I guess. It's kinda vague. Because it's an "art" film, don't you see. Oh, and it's raining. And it's at night. The end. Wow, moved and impressed, aren't you?

I don't know if the producers truly had the Pinky Violence films in mind as an antecedent, but Freeze Me is certainly less a homage than a betrayal. And sadly indicative of regressive and repressive strains in "modern" attitudes about women and sex. (By the way, the best Pinky Violence parody/homage is the hilarious Kamikaze Girls.)

During the early 1970s in Japan, with television eating away at profit margins, just like a Reese's peanut butter cup commercial, the "pink" (soft-core porn) genre collided with the yakuza action genre and produced a series of low-budget exploitation flicks featuring biker chicks slicing, dicing, and taking their clothes off.

A few of them, such as Delinquent Girl Boss with Reiko Oshida, don't actually suck. With her husky Lauren Bacall voice, Oshida totally sells the role as a bad girl in control of her environment and her own fate, willing to use both her fists and her sexuality to achieve her aims.

I consider Oshida's Rika the archetype for such modern anime heroines as Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) and Kumiko Yamaguchi (Gokusen). But watch Delinquent Girl Boss and then Freeze Me and you can't help but wonder: What happened?

One way I measure the relative quality of a bad movie is how long it takes me to doctor up a better script. It took me about five minutes to think of a better last half to Freeze Me.

Let's say a cop starts poking around—a female cop—wondering why the thugs haven't been reporting to their probation officer. The heat is on, and Chihiro has to figure a way to get rid of the bodies. And no way is she going to cram them down the garbage disposal. She's got to come up with something ingenious, and the cop is beginning to sense what's going on.

Ah, a physical and a moral dilemma. Now we've got pure film noir material. A comparison that springs to mind is Bound by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Freeze Me could have hummed and purred as well. Instead it alternately shivers and sweats and clunks and gives up without a fight.

I blame Thelma & Louise, which should more appropriately be titled: "The Original Dumb & Dumber." This supposed paean to film feminism follows the exploits of two unbelievably stupid grown women who have spent their entire lives as victims of impulse and circumstance and aren't about to let a little (almost justifiable) homicide stop them.

The good-guy cop (Harvey Keitel) finds them such a pathetic pair that he starts emoting like a father in pursuit of his two dimwitted daughters. Their exploits inspire pity at best, contempt at worst. Not once is logic ever allowed to compete with emotion, let alone overcome it. So why not just drive off a cliff?

It's hard not to read a very obvious metaphor into the final scene: the caring man stands by helplessly while the newly "liberated" women cast themselves into oblivion. And a woman actually wrote it.

It doesn't help that so many "artists" are so willing to read "profundity" into self-immolation, if dressed up with enough psychobabble or multiculturalism. It takes years of indoctrination to find something noble in dying for nothing, as Clint Eastwood did in the morally obtuse Letters from Iwo Jima.

Eastwood should have heeded his own advice: "A man's got to know his limits." Then again, Dirty Harry Callahan was much more sensible about things like that. Hells bells, even Rambo has a smarter motto. It's "Live for nothing, die for something!" not the other way around.

To be sure, there are plenty of movies about guys going out in a blaze of pointless glory—Barry Newman in Vanishing Point, James Cagney in White Heat, Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—but the directors stress that either they really deserved it or there was absolutely no other alternative.

Even then, think about it for five minutes and it's still pretty damn dumb.

And yet for far slighter provocations, women are expected to jump off cliffs, tall buildings (Vertigo) and balconies, and throw themselves under trains. I'm sorry, but I just don't see how depicting women as so unimaginative and psychologically vulnerable is supposed to counter the stereotype of women as the "weaker sex."

I ask along with Erica Friedman, "What the hell is entertaining about reading and watching women being complete idiots and being abused by men?"

Which is why there's something more invidious than the lazy, pretentious plotting going on in Freeze Me. And again, I think this is so deeply ingrained—even in modern, leftist Hollywood—that it goes without comment. That is, it is verboten for women to use sex to level the playing field with physically more powerful men.

Trespassers must be punished! Or as Emily Bazelon puts it, "Whenever a woman sins, or contemplates sin, blam!—she's immediately run over by a truck."

Jean-Claude Brisseau's Secret Things serves as the textbook alternative to Freeze Me. His Machiavellian women are similarly punished, but in proportion to the rules they deliberately—and with self-interest foremost in mind—break. Playing with fire will get you burned, in other words. And it's the man lying in the pool of blood at the end.

Ishii's Chihiro, on the other hand, seems mostly guilty of not playing the proper victim. "Life sucks and then you die" may strike the adolescent mind as profound during the teen goth years, but adults know that having to live with your choices is a heavier burden.

The last scene in Secret Things morally redeems all of its excesses, because it straightforwardly depicts two women who have learned something from their bad decisions, and who know where those scars came from. The last scenes in Freeze Me and Thelma & Louise only confirm that the unexamined life is not worth living.

And so, their lives unexamined, they stop living.

Brisseau's treatment of the subject does get so explicit at times (Ishii is restrained by comparison) that you get bored (bored with sex and nudity—now there's a crime!), or much worse, you start giggling. (The "orgy" scene: just don't do it!) Nothing kills the dramatic mood and the sexual tension faster.

But it is the vulnerability of Ishii's and Brisseau's men in the face of such female wiles that clarifies why some governments and cultures enforce misogynistic laws to prevent stuff like this from happening. The don't-objectify-me left joins hands with the don't-tempt-me right to demonize female sexual desire as the root of all societal evil.

Rika in Delinquent Girl Boss broke free of these constraints way back in 1971. It often seems we haven't moved much beyond that high water mark since. As I observe here, it's as if feminists have been busily manning the Maginot Line while the old school chauvinists have been sneaking through Belgium the whole time.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
8/27/2008 3:43 PM   
I'm not sure its demonizing female sexual desire so much as infantilizing it. Well, I'm speaking about a specific variety of feminism that wants to send its daughters out into dark and scary neighborhoods in the dead of night and then pout and say, "Why doesn't the government/society/men do something?" when they get raped.

My brand of feminism says teach those daughters they live in a patriarchal society which is, to a degree (evolutionarily speaking), inevitable--that is, teach them the actual conditions of their environment and teach them how to handle men without running to daddy (so to speak). So much safer and intelligent. And so much more adult in the long run.

Of course, Katie Roiphe tried to make that argument in 1994 and became the biggest blasphemer in the world, but maybe things have moved on since then. (Camille Paglia made the same argument about the same time, but she already was a blasphemer and therefore could say anything she wanted.)
# posted by Blogger C. L. Hanson
8/28/2008 4:34 AM   
I agree with you about Thelma & Louise. (I haven't seen any of these other films you mention.)