Yeah But Seriously, Fuck The Neon Demon

(CW: Talk of rape and strong anti-woman violence; spoilers for The Neon Demon)

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On Friday, Jezebel’s Bobby Finger posted a piece on Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon titled, straightforwardly enough, Fuck The Neon Demon. After watching the movie Thursday night, I am here to say: fuck The Neon Demon, indeed. The Neon Demon is one of the most condescending, woman-hating, moralistic, yet intrinsically shallow films I’ve ever seen. It’s Refn trying his very, very hardest to be a Bad Boy With A Message. It’s exhausting, and it’s terrible.

From the very first shot of the film – Elle Fanning’s Jessie draped on a couch, blood pouring from a cut on her neck – we understand exactly what the message of the entire rest of the film will be. What’s the difference between real violence and performative violence? Well, a lot, but the film refuses to acknowledge its own real violence – I’ll get to that. Isn’t fashion actually violence against women? Well, maybe, but the film doesn’t care to actually engage in any intellectual arguments. After Jessie’s photoshoot, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone, trying her goddamn best), a makeup artist who positions herself as Jessie’s new best gal pal – Jessie is 16, new in L.A., without her parents, and living in a seedy Pasadena motel managed by Keanu Reeves. There’s a nondescript Boy, who is nice and might love her, but once Jessie realizes she is Pretty, she doesn’t need him anymore.

There are also other models, including Sarah (Abbey Lee, who I loved as a model and now love as an actress), but they’re not as Pretty and don’t have The Thing that Jessie, apparently, despite not having any personality to speak of, has in spades. Seriously, it’s like The Room – everyone keeps talking about how Lisa is the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world, leaving the entire audience wondering, “….Her?” No offense to Elle Fanning, who is very good given the almost nothing she gets to do in the film, but Jessie is this Symbol of Prettiness and Womanhood, floating around in Forever 21 dresses while her model rivals wear revealing clothes and lots of makeup, a mere cypher of womanhood, a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman who is crowned the new It Girl for literally no reason. Perhaps this is Refn’s point – a not-subtle joke about how models might actually be boring – but then it’s just unnecessarily cruel to Jessie. Not that Refn cares about being cruel to his female characters – for all its grandstanding about how narcissistic the fashion industry, and those engaged in it, are, The Neon Demon comes down hardest on Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), a model who – gasp – has had plastic surgery on her face. Gigi is portrayed as uniformly stupid, selfish, and “unnaturally” beautiful, which, given the intense unnatural, neon beauty that makes up the film’s (admittedly often gorgeous) photography, you’d think Refn would be interested in. Nope – instead, Gigi is paraded in front of onlookers while a designer talks about how much more beautiful Jessie is because she’s natural. Got it.

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After Jessie’s inevitable triumph at a fashion show (where she makes out with herself in the mirror of a neon triangle temple – get it, models are narcissists), she has a maybe-dream where Keanu breaks into her motel room and forces her to fellate a knife (remember folks, she’s supposed to be 16 years old), then another maybe-it-happens-maybe-it-doesn’t scene where he goes next door and rapes a 13-year-old runaway, possibly killing her: “That real Lolita shit,” he calls it. Gross. Wouldn’t it be great if Jessie killed him? Nah, she calls Ruby and runs over to her place, a huge, inexplicable mansion, where, after showering, Ruby also tries to rape her, stopping only when Jessie kicks her off the bed entirely. So much for girl power, huh. Oh, then because she can’t have sex with Jessie, Ruby goes to her day job at a mortuary and has sex with a blonde corpse instead. This is so stupid it’s barely worth discussing – the crosscuts between Ruby humping a dead body and Jessie sorta-kinda masturbating on Ruby’s couch are so dumb and literal yet clearly are supposed to represent something meaningful.

Ruby is so pissed that Jessie won’t sleep with her, and her friends Sarah and Gigi are so pissed that Jessie is a better model than them, that they finally decide to kill her. This comes right after a monologue by Jessie about how other women are dying to be her (ok I’m not sure if this movie is actually that on the nose, but it’s close), because she’s just so goddamn gorgeous. She’s only murdered once she has come into herself as a sexual being, a beautiful woman who has agency in her life to use that beauty.

The scene where the three women pursue Jessie through the shadowy mansion is actually not bad – a nice homage to 80s Italo-horror. They push her into an empty pool, and then….the next scene is Ruby in a bathtub full of blood, and Sarah and Gigi washing the blood off of each other, filmed through what I can only describe as “leer-cam.” This is supposed to be Ruby’s lesbian gaze, as she watches her friends showering (ugh), but it’s so clearly a creepy male gaze that it’s almost not watchable. Here’s where The Neon Demon really lost me: in its excitement to show so much performative, sexy violence, it completely chickens out on showing any real violence. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi kill and eat Jessie, but we don’t get to see a single minute of it. Maybe it wasn’t sexy – maybe it was disgusting, and thus not worth showing? These women are only ever watched with the male gaze, so that makes sense. But showing the women, in camaraderie, slaughtering and eating their enemy would have been a statement much stronger than anything in the film. Refn wants to show that these women (all women??) are vicious, but backs away from the one thing that would have driven his point home. These women making a terrible, yet conscious and determined, choice wasn’t worth showing.

(A personal note: Refn couldn’t have made the women witches? Or Satan worshippers? Or something interesting? There’s a potentially interesting scene after the murder where Malone lays on the wooden floor, naked in the moonlight, blood gushing out of her – but as with anything remotely intriguing in the film, Refn backs away from it as soon as possible, never to return to it.)

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In the film’s final scene, Sarah and Gigi are at a photoshoot – they’re making it to the top! Gigi, however, doesn’t have as strong a stomach – literally and metaphorically, because that’s the kind of film this is – as Sarah, and freaks out in the middle of the shoot, hides in the bathroom, vomits up blood and a whole eyeball, and disembowels herself with a scissors. Sarah calmly picks the eyeball up from the ground and pops it in her mouth – again, it could have been a really pointed, unforgettable image to have her chew and swallow the eyeball, but instead, it’s in her mouth and then gone in the next shot. The movie ends.

This is a film that apparently decries the shallowness of the fashion industry, but is among the loudest, yet shallowest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that idiot you nkow who has the worst opinions, yet needs to yell about them at every given opportunity. Every gorgeous image is accompanied by the thud of terrible dialogue, or meaningless action. I don’t care about a film having a plot, or likeable characters, but this film has nothing. I realize almost every criticism I level against the film here can be met with the unassailable argument, “But that’s the point.” Maybe it is (though I don’t think all – even many – of these things were done on purpose). But then, my question is: why? Why even make this faux-deep misogynistic morality picture that has such contempt for every single character? It’s beautiful, but as my husband pointed out, it’s beautiful like a fancy car commercial. It’s beauty in the service of nothing.

Refn is more interested in his own “brand” than in making a good film – the “NWR” logo on the opening credits make sure you know just who the auteur is here. Reading his interviews on this press junket make me realize that it’s probably not just the film that is shallow and misogynistic, but Refn himself. Fuck The Neon Demon. Fuck Nicolas Winding Refn. Oh, and definitely fuck that “For Liv” (Refn’s wife) dedication that ends the movie.

I leave you with this quote, from Finger’s aforementioned article, and I would like to request that the final sentence be carved on my tombstone, for people to read for eternity.

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mixtape time vol 3: UNDER COVER

Everyone loves the time-honored tradition of cover songs! Here are some tunes that female musicians took and made their own:

  1. Thee Headcoatees – Swallow My Pride (The Ramones)
  2. Neo Boys – I’m Free (The Rolling Stones)
  3. Britta Phillips – Drive (The Cars)
  4. Angel Olson – Attics of My Life (Grateful Dead)
  5. Kaki King – Close To Me (The Cure)
  6. Pharmakon – Bang Bang (Nancy Sinatra)
  7. Mr Little Jeans – The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)
  8. Mirah – Lion Tamer (Old Time Relijun)
  9. Dog Party – Los Angeles (X)
  10. Mapei – Baby It’s You (The Shirelles)

READING LIST: May 16

As spring finally blossoms, there’s still lots to read! So while you’re spending precious little time inside, here’s what you should check out.

#52FilmsByWomen in 2016

A little belatedly, in mid-January I decided to challenge myself to watch 52 films directed by women in 2016: since I talk the talk, this year I am walking the walk and pushing myself to greater gender equality in my viewing choices! I’m a little behind as of right now, but I’m confident I’ll succeed. Here’s what I’ve been watching so far!

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1. The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)

The Girl is the story of a twenty-something orphan in communist Hungary who is on a quest to find her parents. Her journey leads her from Prague, where she works in a factor, to rural Hungary, where a woman who may or may not actually be her mother takes her in for a weekend. Like many New Wave films, the through plot is secondary to the action, and the characterization: Erzsi attends dances, flirts with men, and wanders around. The first Hungarian feature film directed by a woman, The Girl is a beautiful little snapshot into another time and place.

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2. Rich Hill (Tracy Droz Tragos & Andrew Droz Palermo, 2014)

Rich Hill is named for the tiny Missouri city in which it takes place: the film follows three young Rich Hill men at the brink of adulthood as they navigate life in their small town. But the film isn’t a celebration of traditional small town life; these boys all face heavy problems, like trouble at school (that leads to incarceration for some), jailed parents, and no prospects for the future. But the film treats its subjects with absolute empathy, and it’s a painful little peek into the human condition.

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3. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008)

I generally don’t like films centered on children – although I love kids (I do!), children in movies are usually too precocious to bear, or just plain non-starters. Treeless Mountain is the exception that proves the rule. The film is about two young sisters, Jin and Bin, whose mother is no longer able to care for them in Seoul, so they must move to rural South Korea to live with their alcoholic aunt. The film is told completely from the girls’ point of view – there’s not  scene that they are not in. I was impressed with how well the film captured what it’s like to be a child (the audience isn’t given any information the girls don’t have, though we’re able to understand subtext that they are not), that confusing, wonderful time when anything is possible. From making friends with a disabled neighbor, to starting their own “business” selling charred crickets as a snack, to the final third that left me on the verge of tears the entire time, Treeless Mountain is a sweet, beguiling look at childhood.

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4. 6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

I liked Hannah Fidell’s debut film A Teacher, and I think Taissa Farmiga is one of the most talented young actresses today (she even made American Horror Story worth watching), so I was excited to catch 6 Years (streaming on Netflix US). Unfortunately, it’s a vapid story about vapid people. Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield (channeling Penn Badgeley on Gossip Girl, yuck) play college students – he just graduated, she with another year – who have been together for the titular 6 years, whose relationship runs into some incredibly predictable roadblocks. Seriously, anyone who thought they were The Most In Love With Someone as a teenager will see where this is going – maybe it’s for a younger audience who won’t just yell “You deserve so much better, girl!!!!!” at the screen the entire time. Lindsay Burdge, who was so great in A Teacher, is the bright spot of the film as a sexy older lady – someone give her a better project, please.

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5. Three Versions of Myself as Queen (Anna Biller, 1994)

Anna Biller is a genius at taking tired tropes and rewriting them for her own feminist purposes, and she does this three times in this inventive, hilarious short film. The first version is Biller as an Indian queen, tired of her mundane life, cheered up by her entourage of brightly colored female friends doing a dance number. In the second version, Biller is literally a queen bee, waiting for a new hive until her worker bees find the perfect, pink home. The third version, and my favorite, starts at a Russ Meyer-esque shindig, where everyone is mod-ly dressed and jamming to some tunes. Soon, the men all become obsessed with Biller, and turn into literal dogs, and a hero comes to save her. At the end (spoiler alert?), though, she realizes that her witch powers are greater than any male hero’s, crowns herself queen, and walks away from the scene to her castle in the sky. This is feminist praxis in action.

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6. Butterfly (Shirley & Wendy Clarke, 1967)

Mother-daughter team Shirley and Wendy Clark collaborated on this very short, very colorful experimental short, which juxtaposes lullabies with the sounds of machine gun fire to protest the Vietnam War. The film is scratched, bleached, and hand-painted to create a disorienting statement on mothers and the anti-war movement. I would absolutely love to see more mother-daughter collaborations!

mixtape time vol 2: Late Nights & Early Mornings

Being a near-ancient 31 years old tomorrow, I don’t really have late nights or early mornings anymore – I’m solidly a “sleep 10 hours every day” type person. But there’s lots of beautiful music about the end of the night, and the beginning of the morning! Here’s the tracklist for this mix, and a Spotify link below:

  1. Foxes – Night Owls Early Birds
  2. Hannah Diamond – Every Night
  3. Carly Rae Jepsen – Making the Most of the Night
  4. Got a Girl – Friday Night
  5. Suzi Analogue – Late Nite
  6. Low Roar – In the Morning
  7. La Luz – Morning High
  8. Little Boots – Better in the Morning
  9. Teen Daze – Morning World
  10. Meg Myers – The Morning After

mixtape time vol 1: Hey Ladiessssss

In high school, I was obsessed with making mixtapes – for friends, for crushes, even eventually for strangers over the internet (artofthemix.org, anyone?). In college, I had a show on the campus radio station, where I could share songs I loved with a (slightly) wider audience. But after that…nothing. I’ve basically spent the last 10 years suggesting songs here and there, but my love of mixes has mostly been for me. Not anymore! Twice monthly, I’m going to post a mix here on FR – themed, random songs, single artist, who knows!

For my first installment, I obviously went for the ladies first theme: songs performed/authored by women. This mix includes the best single-maker in pop music right now, Ariana Grande, the sexy funk of The Internet, a live Karen O track, and a 16-minute finale from Iowa-born Karen Gwyer. Enjoy!

THINGS WE CURRENTLY LOVE SEPTEMBER

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Lady Lamb – After

Lady Lamb’s (formerly Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) new album After is one of my favorite little gems from 2015. I had never heard her music before this album, so this album fell into my lap as a fully formed treasure. The strength of Lady Lamb’s lyrics – about love and loss and modern anxieties – are bolstered by the sometimes sweet, sometimes surprisingly hard rocking tunes she crafts around her words. It’s definitely not the “young woman makes quiet folk record” cliché, but instead, young woman takes the world around her as she experiences it and creates a moving record of her truth.

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Marjorie Cameron

One of the biggest experiences of cultural FOMO I have suffered in the last few years was the Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman exhibit at Los Angeles’ MOCA last last year. The more I read about Cameron, her relationship to Jack Parsons and other male occultists of her day, and her art, the more I am just in awe of this incredibly powerful woman. Finally, the Deitch Gallery brought an expanded version of the MOCA show to their gallery in New York, and I was lucky enough to be able to check it out this past week. It’s in a beautiful, sunlight space with bare white walls, belying the dark imagery in Cameron’s art. Dark, yet incredibly compelling and, to me, remarkably inspiring. I am strongly considering getting the sketch pictured above, from the Songs for the Witch Woman series, tattooed on my leg or side, as a reminder of the power of witch women, and also because of how plain beautiful it is. Taking Cameron’s inspiration to heart for future projects!

Pumpkin Spice Lattes 😦

Fall is incontrovertibly the best season (sorry to one of my favorite writers, Jia Tolentino, who is just totally wrong on this), and, being really real with you all, it’s partially because of pumpkin spice flavors!! Especially Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Lattes! I am one of those basic bitches who love a PSL; I got the pre-release coupon for an early cup, I even think the PSL promoted tweets are cute? But really, fall is the best, cinnamon-y flavors are the best, and now I will be enjoying pumpkin spice fever until after Christmas.

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Knitting

I’m an anxious person generally, and I’m currently going through a stressful professional time. Knitting has become at once hobby, coping mechanism, and bulwark against despair. I had attempted to learn to knit about 4 times previously (efforts going back 10 years), and gave up each time, frustrated that my hands couldn’t or wouldn’t make the right figures. This time something clicked, and I immediately felt like a witch. Making objects out of yarn is extraordinarily satisfying and grounding, combining precision, attention, and a long process of learning with a sense of provisionality and play, while offering me material evidence of my competence. It’s a joy, and I’m grateful it’s part of my life right now.

The Ocean

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My boyfriend and I recently made a trip to Prince Edward Island for our friends’ wedding. I grew up on the Island between the ages of 8 and 18, but, for various reasons, I haven’t visited in almost a decade, and haven’t seen the Atlantic Ocean in nearly as long. I didn’t realize how important it was to me, how viscerally I’d missed it, until we arrived at Greenwich Dunes and I immediately ran into the waves and started crying. It’s already been too long since I’ve been back.

Hot toddies

Cut up a whole hunk of ginger root into pieces (you don’t need to peel it) and put it in a pot with a cinnamon stick, some whole cloves, and a few pieces of lemon peel. Add 5 cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about half an hour. Strain the liquid, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a mug, then top the mug up with some of the ginger mixture you’ve made. Add honey generously and, if you wish, the alcoholic spirit of your choice. Drink and feel cozy as fuck.

Julia

Summer lingered long through September here, and I am grateful. The month ended with a supermoon and an eclipse, so I stared long and hard at the shadows of the moon trying to make sense of space, time, light and darkness. Something tells me I won’t find the solution overnight.

Nicolas Provost – Papillon d’Amour

I watched more short films in September 2015 than I have in the past year. Quebec City’s Film Festival has hit its stride this year in its 5th edition, and my favourites were the local short films screened in all kinds of contexts – in shipping containers, in decadent moldy theatres, in gorgeous palaces. Simultaneously, the first Quebec City edition of Cinédanse took place at the Musée de la Civilisation. I could list off the gorgeous shorts I had the chance to see screened, but the one that struck me the most and that translates best onto screens of any size is this piece by Nicholas Provost, from 2010. Simple, short, and fucking intense. Also now I need to rewatch Rashomon.

Reading poetry and shit

I’ve been making a real effort to read more fiction in French these days but I keep getting sidetracked by badass poets. Namely,

Warsan Shire
Elaine Kahn
Louise Glück
Anne Boyer
Alice Notley

Also people can you stop posting Warsan’s work without crediting her? That would be great. That happened a lot this month with her poem  “Home” and it pissed me off.

Wide-brimmed hats

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For years and years and years, I have lusted for cloche hats. They look so good. I love pretending I am a modern-day flapper when I wear the ones I have. As my hair grows long, and longer, I am confronted with the reality that cloche hats look best on chin-length hair – or shorter. Well guess what. Wide-brimmed hats look fucking awesome when your hair is longer. So here are some selfies of me with wide-brimmed hats, including a fancy-ass French one I wish I could afford.

P.S. YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE WAS AWESOME ABOUT SEPTEMBER? Meeting Emily. That was pretty awesome. [Emily interjects virtually: YES, IT WAS AMAZING <3<3<3]

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I’m a sucker for anything involving trees in the title, which occasionally leads me astray (I’m avoiding watching The Place Beyond The Pines even though it has the best title of all time??) but lately I’ve been rewarded by pine trees, specifically in Alice Notley’s Into The Pines and AroarA’s Into The Pines.

The latter is a sort of adaptation of the former, taking Notley’s already experimental book of poetry, and writing a song for each of the poems. Having listened to the album to the point of memorization before reading the book, I had a really weird reading experience. The book of poems is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and I’m not sure why it took me years to finally get around to reading it. I often write down or post on tumblr my favourite lines, but it got to the point where the entire book was my favourite line. I resisted posting more, feeling like each line was reduced when outside of the poem it is part of. Which is a weird thing to feel, considering the album takes a few lines and writes a song about it. I experienced it in the wrong order, and I wonder if I would like the album as much if I’d read the poems first. Initially I want to say I now have context for these lines, but rather I have a linguistic context within the book versus the musical context of the song. Both are complete works, with their own world and wholeness. Both ache with a long sadness, and have the haunted shiver you can only find in the dark woods. The lines from the poems, “I was born to be your poet,” “I am a dead man’s eyes and I haven’t seen anything for eternity,” “I’m going to find your soul,” aren’t missing anything in the songs. They have a new home, with just as much meaning. A really remarkable project, I wonder if it could work with others.