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Monday, Jul 2, 2007

Who doesn’t love a good manifesto? The New York Times thoughtfully provides pdfs of the Splasher Manifesto, distributed mysteriously a week or so ago by a group that apparently hates street art—they went around splashing paint on works by people like Banksy, who had suddenly became trendy with lifestyle magazines. This epistle has everything that makes manifestos great—Situationist-style mischievousness; heightened, pretentiously militaristic diction; paranoid megalomania tending toward nihilism; petty grievances about the art world elevated to cosmic significance; enough ambiguity and implicit irony to make it impossible to tell how seriously the authors take themselves. It’s as if they only just noticed that artists make commercial objects that are traded in markets that manufacture value out of thin air—value that is ultimately backed by workers’ sweat equity at some point in the economic chain. (This is most memorably stated on the page with the slogan “Capital sucks from the teats of idols”—“Your compromises with capital are not some side deal you make to support your art; it is essential to it, capital is woven into your production.”) Of course this makes artists’ poses ludicrous. But it almost gives artists too much credit and dignity to be appalled at how they fail to transcend capitalism; they never had a chance, especially the ones who practice art as if it were a shortcut to an understanding of sociology or political science. The movement that the splashers are trying to halt is the one that will expose once and for all that artists and advertisers (“creatives”) are essentially synonymous at this point. A new word needs to be coined for the creative practice the splashers want to champion, though it may just be the self-actualization promised by consumerism realized by different means.


There are some provocative points in the manifesto—namely that the avant-garde and the Left should not in any way be considered synonymous; avant-garde movements are not any more progressive than fashion cycles are. Also, that commercial street art turns public space into desiccated gallery space. It makes people walking the street feel vaguely like trespassers. It’s one of the reasons I personally hate the monstrous sculptures corporations plop in semi-public spaces near office buildings—the demoralization that occurs in the typical hierarchical and bureaucratized office is extended into the world at large.


But I would have enjoyed the manifesto for its audacious rhetoric alone. A few highlights:


“We began these series of actions as a critique of rationality…. To further exemplify the disrespect we felt for the work and its creator, we arrogantly mixed the wheat paste with shards of glass.”
The use of the adverb “arrogantly” in that statement perfectly exemplifies manifesto style, which is mainly about ludicrous adverb placement and unnecessary jargon.


“Any dialogue with power is violence, whether passively suffered or actively provoked.”
A good example of the tendency of manifestos to generate a multiplicity of near-meaningless aphorisms. The heightened rhetoric of manifestos proceeds toward an ideal in which every single utterance is an aphorism, a pithy expression of some contingent insight that is reframed as a universal axiom.


“We are comprised of both men and women”
Obviously there are no copy editors among them.


“If we did have to speculate on what would encompass a successful outcome, we would have to rejoice over those who are now autonomously destroying pieces on their own volition in cities across the globe.”
The global reach they imagine has to be tongue-in-cheek. But this is typical of manifestos, where a radical group’s efforts set such powerful examples that like-minded followers emerge spontaneously and forward the cause independent of their ever having being a coherent explanation of what the cause is. Manifestos imagine the power of organizations without the overhead costs they necessitate; the magic discourse of the manifesto calls into being groups that can achieve public goods without the friction of interpersonal squabbles.


“We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom.”
Sublime hyperbole, almost Baudrillardian in its scope. The idea that physical starvation is preferable to consumerist anomie is like the Spartanism I sometimes romanticize taken to the nth extreme: Material deprivation is preferable to meaningless choice among consumer goods. And remember, they are justifying nothing more extreme than vandalizing street art—they are willing to starve rather than be affronted by some well-meaning, gentrifying mural.


“Art collectors and admirers are the most insufferable lot of all. Endowed with nothing but time and money, they consistently hemorrhage both meaningless adulation and cash on their preferred jesters.”
“Nothing but time and money”—these are not bad things to have a surplus of. I guess the implication is that they lack talent, but the impression I get from the rest of the manifesto is that talent itself is a bourgeois mystification. I also get the sense that the manifesto verges on becoming the kind of hipster ego art that it professes to denounce; that is part of its frisson, perhaps.


“Art: the excrement of action”
The syntax here mimics that of the granddaddy of manifesto writers, Marinetti, the futurist who wrote “War: The World’s only hygiene,” a document which contains the immortal declaration “The red holidays of genius have begun.” “Art: the excrement of action” has some similarly bombastic declarations, about the centrality of action and destruction as creativity and so forth; apparently this group doesn’t subscribe to the notion that capitalism is the original harbinger of creative destruction—maybe they should read Schumpeter; they might appreciate his tone if nothing else.


“Destroy the museums, in the streets and everywhere.”
It’s impossible to tell if this is meant literally, but I take this to mean that the complacent, reverant attitude, flush with social capital, that we take to museums makes it impossible for us to appreciate art as it should be appreciated; it robs it of its appropriate context—apparently that of class struggle: “destroying the bourgeoisie”. This seems a tall order for most art, but if it can make us feel ashamed of the museum-going mentality, the passive faux-transcendent pose of chin-scratching judgment and connoiseurship, it’s moving in the right direction.


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Sunday, Jul 1, 2007


The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.


That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.


Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).


Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.


All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.


It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.


Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.


While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.


It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.


Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.


His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.


Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.


From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.


This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.


Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.


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Sunday, Jul 1, 2007
Courtesy: The Saturday Age, 30 June 2007, http://www.theage.com.au

Courtesy: The Saturday Age, 30 June 2007, http://www.theage.com.au



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Sunday, Jul 1, 2007

A few weeks ago, Nicolas Carr, who’s generally a reliable source of technoskepticism, had a column in the Guardian about the capability we now have to record every aspect of our own lives—“life logging”, as it was called in a recent New Yorker article Carr links to. Carr points out that this trend is likely only to intensify as technology improves and companies become more aggressive about marketing it:


As surprising as it may seem, we’re probably only in the early stages of this phenomenon. Big companies like Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Google, as well as many internet startups, are working hard to give us new and even more powerful tools for recording our lives. They want to make self-recording automatic, as natural as breathing. Their goal isn’t just to sell us more computers and cameras; they know that the more details of our existence that we encode and send over the internet, the more they’ll learn about who we are, how we act, what products we’ll buy and what advertisements will catch our eyes. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more attractive we become as targets for marketers.


That’s a pretty grim prognosis; our narcissism will allow advertisers to target us in real time, and we’ll probably be flattered by this, that we are known personally to these large transnational institutions. The more personalized the ads aimed at us become—the personalized recommendations on Amazon, etc.—the more intense our narcissism may grow, as our expectations will adjust to having everything tailored for us. We may grow intolerant of one-size-fits-all offerings and choose to channel more of our existence through virtual reality, where more personalization and customization can be blended in seamlessly. Of course other people will be annoyed that they can’t escape from themselves, that their environment always seems to anticipate just who they are and doesn’t permit them the fantasy of becoming a different sort of person with different desires.


But because we can record every aspect of our lives, does that mean we must? And what do we sacrifice for all this self-mediation? By attending so much to recording our lives, are we putting ourselves at one remove from the life we are supposed to be living and recording?


What exactly is behind our rage to document the minutiae of our daily existence? That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just another manifestation of modern-day narcissism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of our media-saturated culture, with its sense that nothing’s real until it’s been recorded and broadcast. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. In striving to preserve the moments of our lives, to immortalise them, might we simply be expressing our fear of death?
As for Socrates, it’s hard to imagine that he’d be pleased with any of this. We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the real point.


So the real point is that we are using technology to reject the prospect of an examined life, of considering more deeply what it is we are actually doing? Instinctually I want to agree with this. I recently got a digital camera, and I took it on a trip I made recently to the California desert. I took some pictures while I was there:


And I was pretty happy with how they turned out. But I spent most of the time I was out on the dunes thinking about taking pictures rather than the vast nothingness I had hoped would be meditative, would take me away from the world I would share the pictures with. The camera became a tie, holding me to a conceptual place where the photos would reside and be shared.


But at the same time the camera gave me a way of focusing, a way of taking the time to really look at the landscape around me. It made me ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask. Like, who is receiving mail here?


This was in the wasteland that rings the Salton Sea, one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been. Amid the scary shacks like the one above are brand new McMansion looking houses but they are detatched from their natural environment in planned developments and are out here where nothing apears planned. These three-garage houses will have port-a-potties in the front “yard” (strange to call it a yard because nothing grows) because there aren’t any sewage lines out there. Anyway, having a camera made my meandering through this forbidding landscape much more interesting and compelling. It didn’t feel like self-recording at the time. The idea that you’re recording could have the effect of making one choose more interesting things to do or work harder to make things seem more interesting in the way they are recorded. But such a life, artificially heightened, would probably become exhausting, crowding out the time when one could replenish one’s capabilities to take things in and process them at a more-than-superficial level. What permanent recording deprives us of most of all is that contemplative “dead” time in which we restore ourselves—the sort of time Wordworth describes in “Tintern Abbey”:


But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.


If Carr is write about the future, the very idea of an unremembered pleasure will become impossible; the phrase will become an oxymoron.


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Saturday, Jun 30, 2007


Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.


Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.


Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)—all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.


This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February—Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.


The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.


Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket - she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving—there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.


Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.


Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.


The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.


That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality—her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.


Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?


The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.


Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.


Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.


Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.


Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes—even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.


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